DVD/Video Pick

Dark Days In the mid '90s, Marc Singer, an intrepid British transplant in his early 20s, started hanging around the homeless dwellings in New York City subway tunnels. He just wanted to help. After befriending the denizens of this shadow world, he hatched a scheme to create a film that would shed light on the plight of the homeless. He had no moviemaking experience at all. What began as a labor of love and social conscience turned out to be a remarkable documentary, which bagged three prizes at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival: the Audience, Cinematography and Freedom of Expression awards for documentaries.

Dark Days portrays these down-on-their-luck folk honestly and with utmost respect. The extraordinary intimacy captured here surely has something to do with the fact that Singer, working with virtually no budget, had to use his subjects as his crew. He even lived with them for periods of time. In the black recesses of the tunnels, these folk built ramshackle huts, which they call houses, outfitted with bootleg electricity. They foraged for food in restaurant garbage bags (when two of them discover a cache of nearly fresh doughnuts, it's a party). They search for discarded merchandise and resell it.

Most of Dark Days, though, is set in the tunnels and shacks, where people named Ralph, Dee, Clarence, Tommy, Greg and others tell colorful stories about their scarred lives, cook food on crude hotplates and grills, tend to their dogs and conjure clever strategies to ward off rats.

The film's main achievement is that it turns these fringe folk into real people, many of them with sharp minds and plenty of street-style charisma. Dee is a crack smoker — albeit an uncharacteristically lucid one — but when she tells the heart-wrenching story of how her small children were killed in a fire, the viewer can't help but understand how this type of destitution might ensue.

Dark Days is shot in 16mm black-and-white. Low-budget lighting creates a harsh, surreal glow, rendering it moodily beautiful.

Furthermore, the film benefits from a narrative strain that makes it more than a collection of revealing interviews. These subterraneans, some of whom who have lived in the tunnel for five years or more, are forced out by the subway authority. Through dint of real events, Dark Days culminates with an uplifting end, which renders the film even more life-affirming.

The DVD bonus material is nearly as riveting as the film. The story of how Dark Days was made, and the travails that Singer and his motley crew endured, is almost as good a tale as the film itself. The way that Singer landed DJ Shadow to do the rhythmically atmospheric soundtrack is particularly precious.

In all, Dark Days is the kind of rare cinema that combines importance, enlightenment and entertainment. (Palm Pictures, www.palmpictures.com)

—Eric Snider

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