This is my first weekend at home in weeks. My home is littered with half unpacked bags and laundry piles of hazardous scale. I will have many stories from the last few weeks to tell in the days that come. My travels have landed me in some unique settings. Yet, it was a recent visit to the 2006 Sundance Film Festival that reminded me of a tale I have been meaning to relay for years.
It was January of 2000. We were all awash in the excess of the bull market, and CNBC was more prevalent on the televisions of local bars than ESPN. I had been living a spell in Park City, UT juggling various identities as a self-indulgent ski bum, entrepreneur with mixed results, manic day trader, and soon-to-be law school grad. My friends and I found ourselves reveling in the gluttony of the film festival. Scheming our way past the velvet rope and scaring up tequila shots with a decidedly random assortment of celebrities. A gaggle of twenty-somethings fattening ourselves on the finger foods of Hollywood's studios du jour.
Not being completely without regard for aesthetics and cultural fulfillment, we would find time between backcountry ski sessions and the shindigs on Main Street to catch an independent flick or two. Hype rarely correlates with quality at these festivals, so we could sometimes unknowingly score tickets to some real gems. I remember not even waiting in line to see the sleeper hit The Woman Chaser a few years ago. In the shorts, there are always beauties like The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo. However, one film from 2000 stands out in my mind year after year and continues to affect me deeply.
Dark Days, a first-effort documentary by Marc Singer, really snuck up on me. Billed with Singer's trademark modesty, the audience expected a traditionally distant and abbreviated documentary on the plight of homeless people in America. What transpired in the film though was nothing short of cathartic.
Over the course of the next 94 minutes, the audience was thrust into the foreboding train tunnels of Penn Station. This dangerous underground labyrinth comprised a barely habitable locale housing a shockingly resilient and inventive community of squatters determined to defy the depths of their personal struggles to survive and maintain a sense of identity in the process. Their yearning for stability, comfort, and control over their own destiny unfolded in first person accounts framed by the stark images of where they call home.
So here we were, bellies full of hors d'oeuvres from the Miramax soiree, last night's vodka tonics lingering in our veins, and a daisy chain of then $70 ski lift tickets dangling from our parkas. Minutes later, we are there, in the tunnels. Silent witnesses to an unending and painful pursuit of life's basic needs.
Grainy, imbalanced lighting, and shaky camerawork confirm the film's authenticity. I learned later that Singer had used the subjects of the film themselves as the crew. Autodidacts determined to have their stories heard. Music by the incomparable DJ Shadow sparingly complements the scenes and will push any hesitating tears from your eyes.
The entire film is a masterpiece. Inspired, humble, direct, challenging. When the lights came up, there was a palpable pause among the crowd before the applause erupted. Introspection dominated. We each realized the searing irony of our surroundings, and took a moment to digest it all. Wet eyes abounded.
In the Sundance premiere tradition, the director stood in front of the screen to answer questions about the film. Often, this presents various members of the audience the chance to posit narcissistic diatribes masquerading as questions, but really just chances for these folks to hear themselves speak. One such 'questioner' arose to spout on and on about the use of black and white film. He bandied about a plethora of delicious film school adjectives and flexed his cinematic intellectual muscle dropping names of obscure art pioneers all while complimenting Marc's choice of black and white as a well-informed maverick decision.
When the verbal diarrhea had subsided, and it was Marc's turn to respond, he quietly, and with his demure British accent, stated simply, "The guy at the film store said that if I had never shot with color before, I would fuck it up. Thus, black & white." Stunning pragmatism once again contrasting with the unabashedly abstract surroundings and putting the questioner's ass back into his seat.
A similarly wordy viewer asked the next question, which essentially boiled down to "How did you get these people to trust you considering you were an outsider to their world?" Marc, paused briefly, presumably reflecting upon the gravity of his experience, then proceeded to tell us, in an almost whisper, "I lived right there with them in the tunnels on and off for most of three years."
No one uttered a word for the next full minute. We have all known folks in our lives who dedicate themselves to helping others. I live in awe of them every day. But, here I was considering a British kid my same age, who had so unflinchingly dedicated himself to the goal of telling this story, that he had abandoned our collective life of urban privilege to live in disease-ridden and polluted train tunnels among homeless people . . . for three years!
I will never forget that night. Beset on all sides by fleeting tastes of opulence, there were a group of us who said very little, and who couldn't partake of the excess. The loud parties went on without us, and we just cooked fajitas at home, telling stories of where we grew up and remembering our buddies from school. Never before or since have I been so moved by a film, and very little reminds me more poignantly of just how lucky I am.