It is hard to remember a time when homeless people weren't a constant
presence in the cities. In some strange way we've gotten used to it.
For the past twenty years we've been lectured at by politicians about
"values." Chief among these values, it seems to me, is callous disregard
for the poor. If you are disturbed by the spectacle of homeless people
in the streets, or if you dare to state that this implies a failure
in social policy, that means you're a softy, a liberal, suspicious in
some way, not a good wholesome American. Yeah, it's still morning in
America, folks, and that guy sleeping on the park bench is disposable,
because - hey, we're making money, right? That's all that counts.
Anyway, it's understandable that we look away, because it's not a
pretty sight. There's plenty of mental illness and drug addiction and
just plain ignorance to turn a person off. People who have nowhere to
wash don't smell too good. And getting panhandled in the gorcery store
parking lot has gotten real old. So the whole thing becomes rather distant,
like a statistic or a dry sociology tract.
not politics that animates Marc Singer's Dark Days, but a sense
of personal connection. A young Englishman in New York, he became fascinated
by a group of homeless people living in the Amtrak tunnels beneath Penn
Station. He decided to make a movie about this underground world, and
with no previous filmmaking experience, he made the expensive, but fortunate,
mistake of using 16mm black and white film instead of videotape. The
cost of film stock helped drive him into debt, and eventual homelessness
himself, but the look of the film is more striking than any video.
folks built their own little shacks underneath the city, tapping into
power lines to run their appliances. They dragged junk furniture down
there, along with other useful items they could forage from dumpsters
above ground. Singer just lets them talk about themselves without trying
to impose traditional documentary exposition, or even narration. The
intent is to reveal his subjects as people, so that we can really see
them instead of just their social class and economic condition. Dark
Days succeeds as an honest and unpretentious human document, fully
respecting the dignity of the people involved without glossing over
their faults or sensationalizing their situation.
we are introduced to about a dozen characters, the film tends to focus
on four or five of them. Greg is a self-described hustler who scrounges
old CDs and videos, reselling them on the street. Ralph is a genial,
sad-eyed loner who has been off crack for four years and wants to better
himself. Tommy ran away from a violent home and built a two-level shack
in the tunnel, with a makeshift shower and a pen for his dogs. Dee is
a hard-looking crack addict who grieves the death of her kids. They
all tell stories and jokes, cook food and argue with each other. It
is perpetual night in the tunnels, and there is something strangely
affecting about this barely lit environment with its stifling air and
huge scurrying rats. All agree that it's luxury compared to trying to
live on the streets or in the shelters.
Amtrak eventually decided to evict all the squatters, and we get to
see a nervous official, whose eyes avoid the camera, explaining how
it's all for their own good. A threatened lawsuit by the Coalition for
the Homeless heats things up, and the results are happier than expected.
I couldn't help but think, though, of the many that don't make it. And
marvel at the conditions that people can accustom themselves to, and
At the end we discover that the people in the tunnels were also the
crew of the film. They carried and set up the makeshift lights, helped
with the wiring and the dollies. Dark Days was truly a collaborative
effort. It won the audience prize at Sundance. It's a portrait of real
people, people we may not even notice sometimes, a film that breaks
through the "values" of indifference.
dark day of Kevin Macdonald's One Day in September was September
5, 1972. The summer Olympics were held in Munich that year, and the
German government was hoping that unpleasant memories of the Nazi Olympics
in 1936 would be erased. But a Palestinian group snuck into the Olympic
village, killed two Israeli athletes, and then held nine others hostage,
threatening to kill them if Israel did not release 200 political prisoners
that day. Israel refused to bargain, of course, and the Germans spent
the next 24 hours trying first to negotiate the release of the hostages,
and then to free them by force. When the Palestinians demanded an airplane
in which to escape, the Germans attempted an airport rescue which failed
miserably. All the hostages died.
narrative strategy is to focus on the tense drama of that one day. On
those terms the narrative is more compelling than any fiction could
be. Two interviews add elements of depth. The widow of Andre Spitzer,
the Israeli fencing coach, is very moving in her recollections of her
husband and the last days she spent with him. The film also scored something
of a coup in managing an interview with the only surviving member of
the Black September group, Jamal al-Gashey, who we are told is living
in hiding somewhere in Africa.
Although he communicates something of his anger at the plight of his
people, and his passion for the cause, there is little background story
provided for him or the other terrorists in the way that we are given
a sense for the stories of the victims. Macdonald chooses not to delve
into political causes at all, which is perhaps understandable from the
point of view of his narrative choices, but ultimately it mars the film
with a feeling of superficiality. He shows Olympic athletes competing
with music of the period (such as Led Zeppelin) playing on the soundtrack
- this is snazzy technique, but it seems like filler when you consider
the wider issues involved.
the film regards the Palestinians with a sort of resigned detachment,
the real "villains" of the piece, if you will, turn out to be the Olympic
Committee, and to an even greater extent, the German government. The
Committee paid lip service to the worldwide concern about the crisis,
but its priority was clearly the bottom line - making sure the Games
continued. And they did so, only halting them after international protests
during the hostage crisis, then blithely resuming them after the deaths
of the Israeli athletes.
One Day in September is most interesting is in its revelations
concerning what really occurred at the airport. The behavior of the
Germans was a fiasco of inexcusably poor planning and worse execution,
combined with outright mendacity. Refusing help from the Israelis, they
concocted a plan using untrained police, based on inadequate information
- a plan that was doomed to fail. When it did fail, they announced that
the hostages were all safe, only to have to retract the announcement
hours later with the tragic news. The film goes into all this in great
detail, and suggests, on the basis of some rather convincing evidence,
that the release of the three surviving terrorists seven weeks later
during a plane hijacking crisis was a set-up to avoid further incidents.
climax of this story is handled with considerable drama and efficiency.
Watching it is a sad, disturbing experience. It is quite sickening to
see these horrible events unfold, knowing how it will turn out, still
wishing that it could be otherwise. The picture won the Oscar for best
documentary. Within the limits it set for itself, it is a powerful film.
In artistic terms, it is something of a hodgepodge, not grounded enough
in the social and political context of its time, and thus unsatisfying
in a deeper sense. This is a narrow vision, but it does provide some
fascinating and disturbing details. And so many have died since then,
that the picture seems like a record of the first stray winds in a deadly,
©2001 Chris Dashiell