Author Index



Dashiell's Flicks:
rarely seen gems

Contact Us

Chris Dashiell

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.

It's 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.

These 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.

Although 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 endure.

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.

The 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.

Macdonald's 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.

While 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.

Where 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.

The 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, never-ending storm.

©2001 Chris Dashiell