Underground films don't come deeper than this

Director Marc Singer knew more than most about the extraordinary lives of New York's homeless tunnel-dwellers. How? Because he was one of them.
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The Independent Culture

It's rare in cinema that a documentary earns international distribution; rarer still that the film is made by a first-time director, with no previous experience, no major financing, and that its stars are a group of homeless people living in a tunnel in New York.

It's rare in cinema that a documentary earns international distribution; rarer still that the film is made by a first-time director, with no previous experience, no major financing, and that its stars are a group of homeless people living in a tunnel in New York.

Dark Days is a new documentary shot, produced and directed by an English 27-year-old former model, Marc Singer. At the beginning of the 1990s, Singer moved to Miami from Britain with his father. Within a few years, he had ended up in New York, hanging out with homeless people who introduced him to their subterranean world - disused tunnels under Penn Station. Singer lived there for a few months, deciding to record his new friends' extraordinary lives. The result, seven years later, is Dark Days, in which Singer demonstrates how life can be reduced to subsistence amongst the refuge and rats of one of the western world's most populous and prosperous cities.

Meeting Singer in a café in the East Village of New York, it's hard to imagine he was once homeless. He has just bought his own apartment in Brooklyn, and is now taking a well-earned rest. "It's the first time I've had my own shower, my own toilet and everything ... I just want to kick back for a while.

"Whenever I've seen a film about homeless people it's never the truth; that was one of the reasons I made the film - you'd see this little guy sitting in a corner, giving a sad story, feeling sorry for himself, blaming everyone around him. The more time I was spending on the streets, I realised the people were nothing like I thought they were - they're people, they have the same hopes and dreams, laugh at the same things," Singer explains. "I figured if people could see them as people, at least if there could be a little less hatred directed at them, things could be better."

The raw and rough-edged style of the film (hip-hop producer DJ Shadow provides the soundtrack) has been recognised by accolades awarded at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up two prizes in the documentary section last year. Today, Singer lives in the relative comfort of his apartment. What's more, all the homeless people featured in the film have now been housed, many have jobs and all benefit from the film's profits.

"When I first moved into the tunnel, I had no idea I would make a film about it. One evening , whilst sitting around a fire, I thought why not make a film about this? Then I just got on with it," he explains, over bagels and coffee. The funding was a key question. Singer raised a lot of the film's finance on credit cards: "In the States, once you get one credit card, you can get loads more."

The rest was due to the generosity of friends, companies like Kodak (who gave him "as much film as I could carry") and Cinevision (who provided him with cameras for the duration of the project). (You can see how it might be difficult to turn Singer down: when someone sneezes several tables away in the café, he stops mid-conversation to say "Bless you".) "I just went to a camera shop, asked the guy how to work them and went on from there, got some books out and taught myself." The people in the film also helped with carrying equipment and camera loading. "One of my friends said to me at the time, 'If you want to make this film, just take your bollocks in one hand and your camera in the other!'" The process of completing the film took six years, and two of those were spent editing the 50 hours of footage.

Dark Days takes a positive and realistic approach to the plight of the homeless. It sensitively reveals the qualities of a group of people who seem at first unappealing and threatening. Despite its subject matter, the film exudes hope, not least in showing the ingenious ways basic comforts are eked from limited resources: shaving, watching TV, cooking, and all using the city's power supply. "I thought this day would never come," says Tommy in Dark Days, as he prepares to move out of the tunnel. "Once we get these jobs and everything, ain't gonna be none of that fried chicken shit - it'll be steaks, straight up every night," he enthuses to his friend Brian.

The drug scenes are subtly indicative of what leads to narcotic abuse. According to one person's estimate, nearly 80 per cent of the tunnel inhabitants are crack addicts, and it is through crack that many have found themselves there. The experience of Ralph, a reformed addict, is typical: "When my wife found out, she said it was either me or the drugs, and I always went back to the drugs," he says in the film. "Then one day I came home and she'd packed all my bags. I always had to get to the point where I'd nearly OD."

However, Singer didn't simply document the lives of the tunnels' inhabitants - he set about trying to improve their lot. With the help of photographer Margaret Morton, who has been documenting the homeless for the past decade, Singer went to the Coalition for the Homeless and managed to persuade them to file an injunction against the rail company Amtrak to protect the people living in the tunnels. Over about a year Singer and Morton devoted themselves to assigning vouchers released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to those living in the tunnels.

Singer has since been inundated with offers to produce films and documentaries in the States, and has a tight schedule promoting the film around Europe. Dark Days must surely have opened a lot of doors for him ... "Well it has, but it has also closed some: now I'm always the guy who's done this film, whereas I'm a lot more interested in what other people are up to." He's hesitant about his next step: "I could possibly make another film, although I'm not sure. At the moment, I'm just taking it all in." There is, he says, little chance of him been taken up by Hollywood: "New York is the place. I've no need to go to LA. I don't mind LA, but if I was to make another film, it definitely wouldn't be there. New York is such a vibrant city - the energy is incredible. At first, the city kind of controls you, then you learn how to use it."

'Dark Days' (15) is released on Friday