Dark Days is an artistic documentary film by Marc Singer about people living in the underground tunnels of NYC’s transit system. The film encompasses three major themes: destitute, personal tragedy, and human resilience. These major themes are conveyed in numerous ways. One of the most striking ways is through editing and cinematography. The visual storytelling in this documentary is phenomenal. There is little to no verbal narration. The narration we do get is either through the subjects of the film or of visuals depicting their living conditions. I found this refreshing as most documentaries are filled with narration, statistics, and scientific studies. This documentary did not need any of those elements; this documentary achieved what those elements could not– a real story about human beings through their perspective.
The choice to shoot this documentary in black and white is both unique and brilliant as far as visual storytelling goes. Black and white does a great job at visualizing the conditions these people live in, as they mostly live in the dark. It also forces viewers to focus on the subjects of the documentary rather than get distracted by the garbage and filth of the tunnels. The black and white works on a symbolic level as well. The people in the tunnels described their life there as the worst time of their lives, however viewers can clearly see their resilience and determination (how they build their houses, how they earn money, etc). The black and white symbolize this contrast in their lives. The subjects of this documentary truly made the best of an awful situation.
There are several shots throughout the film that stuck out to me as prime examples of visual storytelling. In the beginning of the film, we see a man walking down the steps, and then the camera pans to a thin gate over an opening. In the distance, we hear a train approaching– then it passes through our view. This ten-second take tells us a lot without having to explain the situation. The scene in which Dee, who is one of the people living in the tunnels, explains what happened to her children is also very impactful in terms of storytelling. Upon the first viewing, one can tell that there is a lot of silence in this scene. At first it may seem unnecessary, but as Dee tells her tragic story it is clear that the silence is there to illuminate the weight of her story.
Personal tragedy is a huge theme throughout this story. Despite their harsh backgrounds, these people did not let themselves fall victim. I enjoyed how Marc Singer allowed the people to tell their stories. Two people had their children die. They both blamed themselves and took responsibility for what happened. But what struck me was, that despite this awful tragedy, both of these people were able to pick themselves back up. This then turns into another major theme– human resilience. All of the people living in the tunnels have all lived through “dark days,” yet instead of wallowing in self-pity they were (literally) able to build themselves up. One strong example of this is when Greg claims that he has to make money. Greg does not see himself as a victim, which contradicts many stereotypes about homeless people. Overall the people of this documentary prove that human resilience and adaptation exist in even the most extreme situations.
The only problem I had with the documentary is that makers of the documentary do not update us on what happened to these people. While watching the documentary I found myself becoming very attached to the characters and yearned for their success in the outside world. However, that satisfaction is never fulfilled and we are left with our imagination as to what happened. Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s intention – not to squash the viewers hope with an unpleasant reality.