Dark Days is a documentary that enables its viewers to confront poverty on a human level by presenting its subjects, for the most part, like anyone else, living lives, despite their socioeconomic difference, relatable to our own. Shot in inky black and white, like a newspaper with graffiti typeface, and accompanied by experimental hip-hop maestro DJ Shadow’s music, the film’s bleak content is smartly aestheticized by these accoutrements, at once strengthening its sense of time and place and making the film more palatable and marketable. Being rereleased for its 10-year anniversary, Dark Days’s Metropolis-like setup, where the rich live in rising towers and the poor underground, may well be all the more relevant today given the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and the economic storm that we all must try and weather.
Unlike Pras’s documentary Skid Row, where his plunge into the streets of downtown Los Angeles’s 11,000 homeless felt like a media stunt he couldn’t quite succumb to (he used his beggar money to eat vegetarian at the Standard hotel), Dark Days never feels like a vanity project. As we meet its various subjects, we’re never ripped back to the scared-as-shit in-camera confessionals of Pras hiding in his tent, but rather there’s a feeling of cool chumminess that director Marc Singer cultivates between himself and his subjects—a sense that, though Singer isn’t one of them, he empathizes with them like a friend and vice versa. As we listen to their stories, it’s clear that what defines their daily lives is largely what defines ours: working for money, taking care of pets, tidying up the house, preparing meals, socializing with friends, taking the weekends off to relax. Though the context they perform these functions in is far different from our own (their food is scavenged out of garbage cans, their pets serve more to ward off rats, their work is returning cans to the recycling center or selling found items), their daily grind is made relatable, one of Dark Days’s most unassuming abilities besides generally bringing out the best in its subjects despite their unfavorable conditions.
Dark Days also isn’t one to dwell on the hopelessness of the squatters’ situation. Rather than pity the poor, which would be too easy for a documentary like this, the film takes the challenge of seemingly finding in them inspiration and a kind a pleasing interest in their upside-down achievements, the way they are able to sustain a level of livability and even comfort against the odds. Where Edet Belzberg’s powerful documentary Children Underground accessed Romania’s underground population of homeless children addicted to paint fumes by tagging behind the young, unmindful lot, Singer gains accessibility by all but inhaling his subjects’ crack smoke, essentially becoming their roommate, a position which allowed him to film from the inside out.
If Errol Morris’s Interrotron contributed to the progress of documentaries with its eye-to-eye question-and-answer technology, Dark Days feels like it surreptitiously removed another barrier to more direct relations between those behind and in front of the camera: Singer hired his subjects to help him make the film, which created a palpable and pervading sense of trust between them that no technological innovation can provide the illusion for and that in effect renders their screen presence with a great deal of humanity. Singer’s overriding intention with Dark Days (if you can believe it) was to help his subjects get out of their shanties in the underground subway tunnels of NYC and above ground in real apartments, through not only exposing their plight and paying them for their work as his film crew, but also relinquishing the film’s profits to them. (Roger Ebert’s proclamation that Michael Apted’s decades-long observational study Up Series is one of the most noble uses of cinema is also applicable here.)
At the turn of the 20th century, one of D.W. Griffith’s cinematographers, G.W. Bitzer, made New York Subway, a five-minute technical feat that captured the experience of riding a train car in NYC’s newly opened subway system. Not until Dark Days came out in 2000 were the lives of the subway system’s equally-long residing squatter population captured through another impressive technical feat, marking a point in movie history that speaks to change in affordability of movie equipment (though Singer might owe his movie more to the kindness of strangers) and an exhaustion of remaining subject matter for movies to tap into. While nobody’s less in awe of the staggering architectural and engineering achievements of the modern world, Dark Days’s flashlight on the small people, the ones who must live in other people’s worlds, puts a warm face on the anonymous: the discarded and the forlorn who live in the cracks beneath us and survive off our excess, but who aren’t lost causes, merely people struggling to make it like most of us and who made some bad decisions but also had some bad breaks.