The best documentaries are films that submerge the viewer so completely in their subject one feels like one has been an eye witness when the credits roll. "Dark Days," which won three awards at Sundance 2000, does exactly that in depicting a world few people even know exists: a small shantytown community of homeless tunnel dwellers who live underground in New York City.
Filmmaker Marc Singer takes his single black-and-white camera deep inside cavernous Amtrack tunnels leading out of Penn Station and follows the lives of nearly two dozen inhabitants of this dank and dirty, pitch black realm. They're people who might have lived on the street or in shelters, but have instead built surprisingly homey, semi-permanent plywood huts in the concrete subterranean passageways just off the train tracks.
Many of them are addicts. Most are tortured souls (two are brought to tears recounting the deaths of their children). But each of them is humanized to an extraordinary extent by the unblinking eye of this picture, which tracks them through two years of survival and crises that includes a sweep by armed Amtrack police trying to push them back out into the streets.
It's easy to understand why they don't want to leave (some have called the tunnels home for a decade or more). "Wintertime I don't freeze, summertime I don't burn up," one resident explains. "The only thing we don't got is running water."
It's the truth. The denizens of this trash-littered tunnel community tap into the city's electricity with miles of extension cords to power lights, portable stoves, small refrigerators, space heaters and even TVs -- making their homelessness seem at times almost like a darker shade of normal. Some have even painted and hung drywall inside their shanties.
Singer, who lived underground himself while shooting the film, is granted such candid interviews and such complete access to these people's lives that even if it were not an adroit piece of filmmaking with an attention-grabbing style, "Dark Days" would still be engrossing to watch.
If there is one nagging fault with this film, it is that Singer is so close to the project that he doesn't realize he's left out a few simple but important details about these indigent kinsmen and the astonishing hidden world they've created.
We're never given any sense of how close these shanties are to the actual train tracks (not even by the use of sound) and the tunnel dwellers grow on the audience so much that when the film ends without any kind of where-are-they-now update, it's hard to not feel a little gypped.
These are not critical points, but they would have been easy to fix had the director taken a step back and looked at the movie with a fresh pair of eyes.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th March 2001
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 61 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Marc Singer
Starring: André Byman as Man
Also starring: Marc Singer