Legends are told about the Mole People who live in tunnels under New York City with fantastic and sensational details such as rival clans of Mole People who dine on rats and may even have taken on mole-like features. British filmmaker Marc Singer’s film Dark Days takes a more humanistic approach to documenting the lives of actual inhabitants of a shanty town in an abandoned railroad tunnel on Manhattan’s West Side. Over several years he got to know the very human people who found shelter underground. This stark black & white film is in many ways their own story as the homeless worked as Singer’s crew in filming, and the film is itself a serious of vignettes mainly with two people talking very naturally about their lives. While some parts seem a bit staged — such as one woman who never turns her back to the camera, even when talking to someone behind her — for the most part it is a peak into the lives of the tunnel community.
What strikes me is how their lives appear to be normal in many ways. They live in simple huts of wood and plasterboard which are so well maintained that they could be small apartments in New York. They have stoves, fans, and televisions. One man says they have everything but running water, but even that can be improvised as one man displays by taking a cold shower under a leaky pipe. The residents of the tunnel keep pets. One man shows the pen full of puppies he’s bred, another shows photos of various dogs and rodents he’s kept as pets. They go to work and they go shopping. Of course work means salvaging fully functional electronic goods discarded by the privileged and reselling them. Shopping means searching trash for food, including an entire bag full of fresh doughnuts outside of a bakery. We learn that Kosher stores are the best because they don’t mix the foods with coffee grounds.
Of course, this is not a normal life. Singer lets the camera tell the story, scanning over mounds of trash within the tunnel. I can’t even imagine what the stench is like in there. Surging over the trash are packs of large and hungry rats, a constant source of distress to even the most experienced tunnel dweller. And in case you forget what the tunnel was built for, Singer captures the frequent passing of Amtrak trains, bells clanging, perilously close to some of the shanties. This is a hard life, a dark life both literally and figuratively, where people have gained some security but at a great cost. Over all of this is the scourge of drugs and addiction.
Unexpectedly, this movie has a happy ending. In a cruel and officious manner, Amtrak officials and armed police inform the tunnel residents they are being evicted because Amtrak has plans to reopen the tunnel. Yet through the intervention of Singer and the Coalition for the Homeless, all the subjects of the film are able to secure subsidized housing. The final scenes show the formerly homeless moving into their new apartments, looking happier than we’ve seen them, and hopefully a bright future in front of them. I think it’s no accident that as the film ends we see one of the men standing by a window, the sunlight that was absent for the entire movie flooding over him.