"We're homeless people down here," says Henry, who's cooking dinner on a portable stove operating inside a New York City train tunnel, "but we know how to cook."
That "but" is at the center of "Dark Days," a remarkable documentary now playing at the Charles Theatre. Director Marc Singer's film never condescends as it follows about two dozen subterranean dwellers. It never treats them as less than people whose homes just happen to stand alongside underground railroad tracks.
Yes, they are living in circumstances that would make most people's skin crawl. Their housing is pieced together from discarded plywood, cardboard and other refuse, their toilets are open buckets, their food is what the restaurants throw out, and their constant companions are rats.
But they're also people with an astounding ability to cope. Some have lived down here for 25 years or more, and take obvious pride in their "homes" - several of which include multiple rooms. By tapping into underground electrical lines, they're able to run electric razors, stoves, even televisions (and they get surprisingly good reception). They take showers under leaking water lines. They've jerry-rigged security alarms, they sweep their floors, they have dogs (and complain about how messy they are), they gripe when the neighbors don't take out the trash.
They survive, they even prosper. And when Amtrak officials show up one day and tell them they have to leave, they get downright territorial.
The story behind "Dark Days" is perhaps even more amazing than the film itself. Singer was fascinated by the masses of homeless people wandering the streets of New York, and began living in the tunnels to find out more about their lives. He stayed there for three months before broaching the idea of making a documentary to his homeless friends. Using donated equipment, shooting in 16 mm (rather than more user-friendly video) and financed through occasional loans from friends, Singer - who had never made a movie before - spent more than two years filming.
His film, culled from 50 hours of footage, debuted at this year's Sundance Festival and became an audience favorite, winning three prizes, including one for cinematography. Black and white has never looked more stark.
Singer's camera is resolutely nonjudgmental, perhaps even to a fault. Many of the people living in the tunnel are crack addicts, some are mentally ill and others are on the run from pasts that seem shaky at best. "I'm being punished for everything I've ever done wrong," one homeless man says staring into the camera, and you get the feeling he wishes someone would call him to task.
But "Dark Days" is content to let these people's stories play out, with very little in the way of explanation or context.
Still, it's hard not to get caught up in these people's lives, or to be impressed by their resiliency.
Directed by Marc Singer
Released by Palm Pictures
Unrated (adult language)
Running time 84 minutes
Sun score: * * *