Dark Days: Going Underground With New York's Tunnel-Dwellers /Documentary Video. [click on to image to enlarge] In the 1990s, a New York model turned his back on the high life – and threw his lot in with homeless people living in tunnels. He eventually turned their lives into an extraordinary film. Marc Singer tells Sukhdev Sandhu how he did it. 'I was a handsome young man at the age of 20," says Marc Singer with a grin. Today, still far from unhandsome, he's sitting in a SoHo bar recalling the early 1990s, when he was living the high life, working as a model in New York. Raised in London, he'd left school without finishing his GCSEs and moved to Miami. A girlfriend suggested he try modelling and, before long, he found himself in New York. "I was a kid in the big city partying my ass off. I loved everything that went with that. I loved all the bright lights and making loads of money."
The only snag was the modelling. "I fucking hated it. It's very superficial. I'd walk around with a book of photos of myself. You spend your time going to hundreds of castings, and the only thing that matters is what you look like. It's not a great way to live."
Singer had a loft in Manhattan's Alphabet City area. "There were lots of immigrants living in project housing, lots of drugs. Parts of it were really dangerous. There was no chance of getting a taxi on Avenue A. It wasn't so long after the Tompkins Square Park riots, when the police had moved in like an army to sweep out tent-dwellers. All the addicts and homeless guys moved on to the streets, surrounding squats and abandoned buildings.
"I'd sit at my window looking at them, fascinated by what it'd be like to live on the streets. I got talking to them, hanging out, occasionally staying on the streets." Often the talk turned to New York's tunnels, which, like those of many other cities, have long been imagined as a fetid necropolis, a netherworld populated by "mole people." - https://youtu.be/tZnt4oJFaNw "There's a lot of mythology around the tunnels," agrees Singer. "New Yorkers say things like, 'They'll eat you down there. They eat rats. You'll be killed.' But I was 21, and that was right up my alley. The tunnels sounded great. I wanted to be homeless so badly." But the subterranean city Singer found when he entered an abandoned section of the subway, linking Penn Station in midtown to Harlem on the west side, was far from lawless. "Living on the street is very physical: if it rains you get wet, and you only have as much as you can carry. But in the tunnels, you can build yourself a house."
These houses were ramshackle constructions built out of scrap metal, bits of plastic, and furniture rescued from skips. Their residents were mostly men – runaways from abusive parents, divorcees, crack addicts. Grief and demons dogged them: Dee, a woman in her 50s, retreated into the darkness after an apartment fire killed her two children; Ralph was tormented by the knowledge that his five-year-old daughter had been raped and mutilated while he was serving a prison sentence. Here, amid the smell, the rats and the poor sanitation, they had carved out another existence – some for decades.
At first, Singer found the tunnels ghostly. "You feel as if you're being watched. It takes time for your eyes to adjust. There are stretches like no man's land. You'll get a cluster of 30 homes, then a stretch of nothing. Those areas are so dark, and the air is thicker and heavier. You feel like you're being followed." He was treated with suspicion at first. "Some of them thought I was a cop. Then they thought I was fucking crazy – you couldn't get any lower than this."
Young, restless Americans have often taken to the road, or to hopping freight trains, in search of adventures, a whiff of otherness. But Singer's journey, vertical rather than horizontal, soon stopped being about finding an alternative world, and more about exploring the connections between overground and underground New York. "Everybody's here: black, white, Chinese, Latino, old, young, on drugs, straight. It's like a representation of the city above, except the tunnels weren't segregated by race. It was more that if you were on drugs, or if you were a runaway kid, you'd hang around with people like you."
By day, may of the tunnel-dwellers would pound the streets of Manhattan foraging for food or scavenging items such as gay porn magazines they could resell. In the evenings, they would descend into the tunnels and cook meals on hot plates, play with pets, and watch TV on second-hand sets powered by re-routed electricity.
By that point, Singer had rigged up his own shelter and had joined the extended family of outcasts. "Before I went into the tunnels, I lumped the homeless together and assumed they were all strung out and hopeless. Now I was making a lot of friends and saw so much potential in everybody. One day, we were all sitting around a fire and laughing about some guy and a rat. We thought it was hysterical. Someone said there should be a film made about us. So I said, 'Why not? Why don't we make a film, sell it, and the money will get everyone out of the tunnels?'"
Dark Days, the resulting documentary which has just been rereleased, is extraordinary in many ways – not least for the fact that Singer had never previously even held a camera. Yet he manages to avoid pity or voyeurism when looking at these stygian settlers. He portrays the inhabitants as an embattled group, a collection of resilient and optimistic individuals who display camaraderie and gallows humour. Not only that, the moody ambient soundtrack by DJ Shadow chimes superbly with the hip-hop gesturing and the tunnel walls, coated with spray-can art and graffiti that seems to echo cave drawings.
In many ways, Dark Days was a collaborative endeavour. The tunnel-dwellers became a crew. Some held lights and microphones, others drew on their professional pasts to tap electricity and construct fresh tracks for dolly shots. Much of the film's power comes from being shot in black and white, its chiaroscuric beauty making it the proletarian antithesis of Woody Allen's Manhattan. "An accident," Singer admits. "When I told a photographer friend I was making a film, he said, 'You can't shoot it on colour. You don't know what you're doing and you'll screw it up. If you do it on black and white, though, it'll still look cool.'"
Singer's loyalty to his friends meant he refused overtures from potential backers. "They told me things like the target audience was 18 to 25-year-olds who liked a bit of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll." The tunnel-dwellers themselves were by then living in public housing after they'd been evicted by armed city officials, a process captured in the film, but Singer was broke and forced to sleep in his editing suite; and at times, on floors belonging to people he'd been filming. "They'd laugh at me, 'So you've gone from cabs and sushi to rooting around in the garbage."On its eventual release in 2000, Dark Days was widely praised and won three prizes at the Sundance film festival. "It was a strange time," says Singer. "I was travelling the country and collecting awards, but each evening I was trying to take as much food as possible from the buffet, then looking for somewhere to sleep." Singer is still in touch with some of his subjects, though many have died. He began shooting another film, about a military platoon, but never completed it and destroyed all the footage.
Even if Dark Days proves to be the only film Singer ever makes, it's still an astonishing achievement, a triumph of doggedness, solidarity and artistic vision. While it has never lost its power to move and astound, it feels especially pertinent in 2014, when the number of men and women sleeping in shelters or on the streets of New York City is higher than since the great depression.
Singer last visited the tunnels in 2011. "It was quite surreal. Amtrak had hollowed out the space. There used to be actual paintings and amazing art there, but they'd painted it grey. There was no graffiti, no rats, no semblance that anyone had ever lived there. It was quite sanitised and heavily patrolled."
While Singer says he felt the tunnels represent a bygone chapter in his life, he's confident that they have a future. "You can't keep the graffiti writers out for ever," he says. "It's a blank canvas for the next generation."- http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/26/dark-days-marc-singer-new-york
VIEW TRAILER HERE - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjjQJipwSxQ
Here also - https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=21&v=tZnt4oJFaNw
Mark Singer Skype Q&A as part of The Homeless Film Festival. Published on May 16, 2012.
Here's our post screening Q&A with 'Dark Days' director Mark Singer at The London College of Communication on 21st April 2012. This Q&A was conducted via Skype between London - New York so we apologise for the low quality sound.
more info on The Homeless Film Festival can be found here -
Produced by Donkey Stone Films, The Homeless Film Festival is a touring festival aimed at screening the best classic and contemporary films relating to homelessness.
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