Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Marc Singer's seminal documentary Dark Days is an eye-opening experience that shatters the myths of homelessness by revealing a thriving community living in tunnels beneath New York City, honestly capturing their resilience and strength in their struggle to survive.
will open once again at Cinema Village
this Friday (July 1), in advance of the Special Edition DVD
release on July 19. Last year, we asked Singer to revisit his film, its impetus, and how making the film has changed him.
Tribeca: What led you down into the tunnels?
My journey began after a chance meeting with a man by the name of John Murphy, a part-time poet and full-time heroin addict. John had been living homeless on the streets of New York City for a little over six years, and he was tired. He was tired of being tired. With my curiosity piqued one morning during a conversation over coffee, I asked John, “Given the opportunity, where would you like to live? “In the tunnels,” he responded. But he had never gone there.
The notion of people living in a network of tunnels beneath the city streets fascinated me. It was deep in the realm of urban myth, and I wanted to understand the reality I knew must have been lurking behind it. Armed with nothing but an innocent sense of curiosity, I roamed through the many train tunnels, steam tunnels, electrical tunnels and subway tunnels that make up the underbelly of New York City.
Tribeca: What was it like?
The first few times I ventured underground alone felt unpredictable and dangerous. The tunnels are dark, damp and intimidating and it is very easy to lose control of your imagination. You feel very much away from the world, and in your own private version of hell. Rats are your constant companions in the more garbage-ridden passageways, and it isn’t uncommon to feel as if the ground is literally moving beneath your feet. You learn quickly that your ears, not your eyes, must become your guide, as even with the aid of a flashlight, should you choose to use one, there is a relentless sensation of something lurking just ahead, watching you from within the shadows.
The irony of the tunnel, however, is that it gets under your skin and it only requires a short amount of time spent in this environment before your initial assessment begins to transform. It isn’t long before you discover peace in the darkness and comfort in the solitude. You build a shack. Your shack becomes a house, and over time, becomes your home. And before you realize it, you have literally slipped between the cracks in the pavement and into a place of true invisibility. The transformation is subtle but very real, and its consequences, lasting.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell that story?
It was never my intention to make a film. Its genesis came to pass quite accidentally one evening when a small group of us were sitting around a fire in the tunnel in a futile attempt to keep warm. As in most communities, a school circle around a fire is a place for storytelling, and the tunnel was no exception.
Our narrator at that particular moment was Jose, a Puerto Rican male who had lived underground for almost thirteen years, and he was recounting an incident that had taken place a few days earlier involving an extremely large and bold rat. Apparently, while sound asleep and in the midst of a wonderful dream, Jose was abruptly woken to the sight of a burly looking rat sitting comfortably on his chest. The rat, Jose continued, seemed very happy and relaxed and was kneading his claws into Jose’s skin. From the reaction among the rest of our circle, it was evident that this would be a shock to even the most hardened of tunnel residents. Jumping out of bed, Jose swiped at the rat, which unfortunately frightened him into seeking refuge in the closest possible place, which happened to be the pajama bottoms Jose was wearing at the time. This in turn caused a further chain of events, which can only be described as hysterical: "Man, someone should be making a film about this shit!” Ralph laughed. "Why don't we do it?" I said.
And that was it. I proposed that we would produce a film, sell it, and in turn the money gained from our labors would afford everyone the opportunity to get out of the tunnel and into his or her own apartment. I had never laid a hand on a movie camera prior to that evening; in fact, I had never even seen one. And asking around, it appeared obvious that everyone in the tunnel possessed even less of a filmmaking skill set than I. “Let’s do it,” I said. It seemed like the perfect place to begin.
Tribeca: Making documentaries is not an easy road. What was the biggest challenge in getting your film made? How did you overcome it? Marc Singer:
The process of making a film is a truly unique and magical experience, and I honestly can’t remember a day that passed by without some type of verbal recognition of how lucky I felt to be a participant. The challenge however, is that it requires an enormous amount of money. Initially I had used credit cards, maxing out as many as the various financial institutions were content to send me. After that, I sold off all the contents of my apartment. The last thing to go was the bed.
There were long periods of time, sometimes weeks on end, where we were unable to shoot a single frame of film. During the editing process we ran out of money again, and it was a further 18 months before we found the financing to continue. In hindsight, I don’t believe there is a magic formula. You have to dig down deep inside yourself, determined to plow forward and persevere no matter what challenges are thrown at you and those standing by your side. It’s a grueling process. No matter what, you can never, ever, quit.
Tribeca: How has making Dark Days changed you in the long run?
It has now been 10 years since the theatrical release of Dark Days, and it is easy to reflect on the many shining moments that have entrenched themselves permanently within my memory. But for every happy memory, there are also exceptionally difficult and challenging ones. I gained insight into—and appreciation of—the human condition, what it means to slip out of the normal grip of society, and how easy it is to become marginalized. But more notably, I learned how hard and emotionally challenging it can be to claw your way back out. Undoubtedly, the experience changed me, but for the better and I will continue to appreciate and reference it for many years to come.
Dark Days opens at Cinema Village this Friday.
Order the Special Edition DVD