Life in the Dark

Infrastructure. The skeleton, the frame upon which concrete dreams of the city are hung. Networks, seen and unseen, circulate water, power, waste, telecoms, people, and so on. Conduits, the hardware, allow for the movements that keep the city moving; pipes, wires, tunnels, roads, tracks, masts; even the air enables the radiowaves and microwaves to flow.
Darkness. Photons too sparsely distributed. Not just too little light, but a lack of hope. The blackness of eyes closed when open. Like the underside of a rock against the soil.
     Dark Days (2000) shows how a city’s darkness and an element of its infrastructure can be inhabited. At the time the film was made, a small community of otherwise homeless people lived in an unused Amtrak tunnel near Penn station in New York. The film depicts people for whom life is better underground than above. They could be safe, dry, make their own home, have neighbours, establish some kind of existence, some kind of dwelling. Nevertheless, to be ready to do this in cold, rat infested darkness, each person had to be desperate.
The black and white film stock bears out the stark realities of their existence as faces emerge from the darkness like disregarded ghostly presences. As the film records various people and their plight, a kind of light is shed on the darkness of the space and their circumstances; upon otherwise forgotten people in forgotten spaces.
In making their home within the infrastructure of the city, these marginalised people become dwellers within a system designed for flows, transport and transmission. What was a conduit instead provides a sense of permanence in the changing city. Moreover, it becomes apparent how the residents of the tunnel exploit other aspects of the infrastructure by tapping into the city’s electricity grid for power in their makeshift homes, which are full of salvaged, functioning appliances.
The documentary’s director, Marc Singer, spent time getting to know, and living with the tunnel dwellers before the idea of a film was ever mooted. Those that share their stories trust Marc and the others behind the camera — they are telling their stories to their own friends and neighbours. It is this dynamic that enables the film to compassionately, but without varnish, provide a glimpse of life in the city’s underbelly.

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