The Full-Time Job of Survival: Martin Bell on Streetwise and TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell
To revisit Martin Bell‘s landmark documentary Streetwise 32 years after its initial release is an experience that would at times seem to beggar an audience’s capacity for prejudice. Never was a community so commonly perceived as forlorn and despondent as Seattle’s homeless youth population ever depicted in such a sharp contrast to common notions of indigence. To endure the film alongside Bell’s feature-length update, TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell — made possible as part of BAMCinemaFest’s NY Premiere Double-Feature this Saturday — is to stand the test of self-questioning that belies any deeper look into the reality of poverty and its lifelong repercussions. TINY, or Erin as she’s now known, is as resilient and vibrant as ever in the face of obstacles, entanglements and hindrances.
Bell’s work makes it evident that it is up to those behind the camera to illuminate what is both invisible and perhaps waiting to be uncovered. To the worlds of the overlooked & marginalized everywhere, the collaborative lens of Martin Bell and his late wife Mary Ellen Mark — whose passing this past year lends an unfortunate timeliness to the lasting nature of their portraiture — was there to give life and a voice to those too often forgotten by time and fallen through the cracks of the American city — and, without that vision, perhaps swallowed up by their very anonymity. Mark’s passing last year marked the conclusion of a life’s work dedicated to documenting lives in torment, struggle, and survival. Filmmaker spoke with Martin Bell at his company Falkland Road ‘s Soho studio about Mark’s legacy, the process of setting out unwittingly on what would become a life-long pursuit, and creating a timeless chronicle of a remarkable life that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell and Streetwise screen June 25th at BAMCinemaFest.
Filmmaker: For a little over a month in 1983 (technically you filmed from Labor Day to Halloween of 1983), you were focused on a demographic element in the American population that had long been living in self-imposed exile, overlooked and swept under the rug in many ways. This experience seems to have informed your later work (American Heart, Hidden in America, TINY). Is this how it happened, or was the compassion for those on the fringe there all along?
Bell: In 1983, Mary Ellen was assigned by Life magazine to photograph kids living on the streets of downtown Seattle. Seattle was chosen by Life because it had just been voted “the most livable city in America.” Mary Ellen called me from Seattle to say she had met a 13-year-old girl named Tiny and a young man named Rat who were living on the street. She felt they could be the subject of our first project together. Mary Ellen said [that] “finding the right subject is always the hardest part” – her sense of story was excellent, so we went back and made a film with Rat and Tiny, as well as the other kids she met on the street.
Filmmaker: Many of your films (Streetwise, American Heart, Hidden in America) take place in Seattle. Can you speak to the connection you have, if any, to the place and how it came to form?
Bell: After we made Streetwise, the city of Seattle had for me become one of the characters in the film. When it came time to make American Heart, Seattle was once again cast as the location – not least because of [Streetwise characters] Dewayne and his father being the inspiration for that movie. In 1983, Tiny’s mother Pat was working as a waitress in the Coffee Hut diner and could afford to rent a modest home. In Streetwise there is a scene with Pat and Tiny at the diner and at their modest home. Today Seattle is struggling with a significant homeless problem. The economy has pushed many people to the very edge and priced them out of our society. There are tent cities, sanctioned and unsanctioned built alongside the interstate running through the city. One of them is called the “Jungle” and houses some 400 people.
Filmmaker: Watching the two Tiny films back to back was a truly intense experience.
Bell: I don’t know how anyone’s going to survive that [double feature]. The films will be run in reverse order. Because TINY is the new film, there are things in this film that are not answered. But when you see Streetwise, it makes sense.
Filmmaker: Seeing TINY, it helps to have seen Streetwise, but it’s almost as if you constructed it so it’s not prerequisite viewing.
Bell: Right, they stand alone. The first thing that Mary Ellen says [to Erin in TINY], is “You were in love with him.” She’s referring to Rat [from Streetwise]. She says “Was he good in bed?” — so you get that there was a relationship, but it isn’t answered in the film. We went back to visit Rat last year at Christmas-time, and made a short film that’s going to be on the website. It’s almost finished, we just have to finish the mix.
Filmmaker: You are working on a whole series of updates, is that correct?
Bell: Yes. This one is about Rat and his relationship with Tiny, and the photograph that Mary Ellen took of Rat and Mike with the gun. It’s a story about how he made good.
Filmmaker: He’s married and employed and has a family.
Bell: Yes. He pulled his life together in a big way – in a really good way.
Filmmaker: Are they still in touch, Rat and Tiny?
Bell: No. In ’83 when he left, he left.
Filmmaker: So your films are basically the sole conduit of connection between them?
Filmmaker: You’ve continued others in this same series?
Bell: Yes, in Streetwise, there’s a couple called Patti and Munchkin. Patti died in 1993 – she was 27. We’ve continued to work with Munchkin. Mary Ellen and I filmed, in 2014 Shadow, Patrice, and also Mike, the kid in the wheelchair. We’re going to make these films available on www.tinythefilm.com.
Filmmaker: The original project, from inception to execution was very quick, and it’s since morphed into a lifelong project. Was that also the case with TINY? I know you had said previously it was intended to be a short originally.
Bell: When Aperture wanted to publish all of Mary Ellen’s work with Tiny over the last 32 years, somebody asked if I could make a film, something that would support the book. Something small. And then, it just got out of hand. It became its own thing.
Filmmaker: With Streetwise there was less than 50 hours of footage. It seems like a small amount in the digital era.
Bell: Film is expensive stuff. We’re not shooting all the time. I remember the sound recordist, Keith Desmond, kept a log of how much he thought we made a day in terms of usable footage. And it was about two or three minutes a day. We also did interviews to use as voice-over. Those were only audio. I didn’t want to make a film using “talking heads.” So using only audio from the interviews allowed us to construct the film entirely of A-roll.
Filmmaker: How did TINY compare in terms of the total amount?
Bell: I still shoot as if it’s film — I don’t actually know physically how much there is. Again, the interviews are just audio, not on-camera stuff. The only thing on camera is the action.
Filmmaker: You had a previous working relationship with Nancy Baker as an editor and on TINY you worked as your own editor. What was the decision-making process behind that? The editing is something that seems aesthetically consistent between the films — in many ways, the voice feels the same. They’re both edited at this brisk clip, and although the shots are often uninterrupted and there’s not a great deal of intercutting. The scenes move along from one to the next at this inviting, assured pace. That voice seems like something you try to honor in the newest installment.
Bell: Nancy is a brilliant editor. In a sense, everything I know about editing I learned from Nancy. In fact, when I got to the end of this edit I sent it to Nancy and said, “What do you think?” She put her 10 cents in, moved a couple of things — she was right.
Filmmaker: You’ve told this story of showing Streetwise back in Seattle in ’83 and watching the audience pour out of the theater — how one kid looked at you and said “I want to hit someone, but I don’t know who” — and that all these years later, you still feel the same way. I’m wondering if you can expound a little further on that. Is it outrage that you come away with from the experience of watching the film, even after being a first person witness? Is there a helplessness that goes along with it?
Bell: It’s a complicated issue. The truth of it is, what you witness is clearly wrong. I filmed kids get into cars with the johns. Cops watched them too. The question is — what are you going to do? After we shot the film in ‘83 we invited Tiny to come back to live with us in New York, and she turned us down because life was too interesting for her in Seattle. She had just gotten away from her mother, and the thought of coming to New York and having to go to school was not what she had in mind.
Filmmaker: So you felt compromised, but also limited in your capacity to offer any solution or change things in a positive way.
Bell: Well it’s a compelling story, there’s no question about that. It’s a horrifying story, with amazing access to that story. But then, the audience is always asking afterwards, why didn’t you help them? And the truth of the matter is, you’re powerless. It’s hard to offer that help. What does it mean? A dollar? That’s not the answer.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that the ethical and moral implications of the documentarian’s role in a process of being a witness like this always comes into play when dealing with at-risk youth. In modernity there’s a great concern with exploitation and a fine line between what is and isn’t exploitative.
Bell: It’s a difficult thing, when you see something happen and can’t actually do anything, but my job is to record it. When you see it happen, you feel something — you can’t not. But it’s also part of the story that you’re capturing. If you switch the camera off and try to do something, you’re not going to have a film. You’re no longer doing your job. I’m there showing you that there’s something seriously wrong here. Of course I was angry and concerned when someone we knew was at risk, and some of them did die. Roberta Hayes died at the hands of Gary Ridgeway [the Green River Killer]. At the end of Tiny, you see Mary Ellen getting a ticket from a cop for jaywalking. Directly behind her, kids are getting into cars with johns. They’re underage. Where is the concern there? It seems to be accepted.
Filmmaker: It seems like an easy position to take — to address only the symptomatic aspects of an issue like this, rather than the source of a situation. It’s easier for someone to suggest that the role of the witness is to abide by some sort of bystander code for intervention and preemption, and that sort of defies the laws of making a non-partisan, non-judgmental documentary.
Bell: It would certainly fire the audience up to suggest that you’re the one who’s got an answer and about to do something — but the truth of it is: What are you going to do? Poverty is a complex problem. Clearly early intervention in these kid’s lives would have made a huge difference. But probably the resources weren’t there to do it.
Filmmaker: A lot of your subjects are no longer with us. Lulu’s demise was documented by CBS news back in ’85. It’s fascinating to watch the original newscast and hear Dan Rather describe her as “dying the way she lived — defending a young girl.”
Bell: She was stabbed to death defending her girlfriend. It was a tragic end.
Filmmaker: The public takes this position a lot in regards to these kinds of characters — it’s not something they’re that concerned with affecting in terms of change, until they see them up close. Lulu’s life would never have been remembered or memorialized without your document of her.
Bell: When you get to know them, that’s when it becomes a problem. For instance, most of Streetwise takes place between 1st and 2nd avenues in Seattle, along Pike St. Right by the market. People were walking back and forth all the time, and there are all these kids, and sometimes they’d give them money, but they never knew anything about the lives of these kids. The film gave at least a little bit of insight into their lives.
Filmmaker: You described it in the past as being a full-time job: figuring out where they can use the bathroom, shower, eat, etc.
Bell: Think about the kid in the wheelchair, Mike. He came down on the street to be with the kids and had to take care of his entire day. Bathroom breaks, food. It’s amazing.
Filmmaker: I feel like that’s what gets to people — because it shines a spotlight on adversity and allows them to realize all the things they’ve taken for granted in their own life, that they might not even consider or be cognizant of.
Bell: It’s about where do you stand, relative to these people. And it’s probably not the most commercial way to make a movie. It probably works better to get people fired up. But Streetwise and TINY are not political films. I did not bring an agenda, nor do I have any answers to the problems recorded in the two films. I am a filmmaker and I look for a strong story. As Mary Ellen said “finding the right subject is the hardest part” — I believe the subject/story of Tiny, Rat and all of the kids’ lives captured in these films is a powerful one, delivered in a direct and unsentimental way. Both films do force the audience to question where they stand on what they witness in the films narrative. Our hope is that by witnessing the everyday lives of these people the films will spark a dialog that may lead to change — to finding a solution to the complex problems created by poverty.
Filmmaker: It gives pause and creates a challenge for the audience : how do you reconcile or justify this existing in the world?
Bell: Well, it’s totally unacceptable and what the films are asking is, how can we accept this? Everybody’s dirty.
Filmmaker: And there wasn’t any conversation about that before you started, that you might be accused of not doing enough?
Bell: Never. It always comes up afterwards. The thing is that what Mary Ellen saw and reported to me, before anything was published & before we even began, was that this was an extraordinary story and we had to report it. Now there is a three-hour record of a life, Tiny’s, from ’83 to literally earlier this year. That’s rare.
Filmmaker: What is it about the disenfranchised, dispossessed and marginalized that compels portraiture & documentation for you? Is it something you had experienced before embarking with Mary Ellen & Cheryl McCall on Streetwise?
Bell: I believe that for Cheryl McCall, Mary Ellen and I, the stories from the edge of our society are compelling. The un-famous have a voice and want to be heard. The language from the street in both these films is beautiful and powerful.
Filmmaker: It’s also in your narrative work, with American Heart and Hidden in America.
Bell: American Heart was built on the premise of, what would happen if Dewayne’s father had gotten out of jail and what would their life have been like? You can do certain things in narrative that you could never do otherwise. You can determine many things. One of the things that John Irving told me was that whenever he starts a novel, or is thinking about a story, he always knows what the last line of the novel is before he starts to write. He has it in his head. In a documentary film, you never have the luxury of knowing how it is going to end with any certainty. Before we started editing Tiny, I went back to the original transcripts from 1983 and found a line from Tiny, which is now the last line of our movie. I said, “Oh my god, that’s amazing, I have to go find the original audio and make sure it’s OK.” There’s a a big difference between reading and hearing a line. I found it, I realized it was perfect. It’s unbelievable. Then I knew I was going towards that line, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.
Filmmaker: So in that way, Tiny was special — almost more like a narrative because of all the legwork and foundation you’d laid in the past.
Bell: In a certain sense, but it was also the same with Streetwise. When we show DeWayne’s funeral, with his father being released from prison just to attend, we had already finished the film. We had to go back to film the funeral. We got that footage and knew that that was an extremely dramatic ending to the film.
Filmmaker: There’s so much visual poetry in that scene that could never have been predetermined — DeWayne’s father handcuffed to his escort, seated before his son’s coffin, saying goodbye, paying respects, his other hand clutching a can of Coke. It speaks volumes.
Bell: Mary Ellen said “reality is always extraordinary” she loved it — she just knew that’s where the story was. You can’t invent stuff like that. Who could possibly know he would want a can of Coke at that moment?
Filmmaker: A quote of Mary Ellen’s that comes to mind is “I’m interested in people who aren’t the lucky ones, who maybe have a tougher time surviving.” Was this interest something you shared or something that grew over time?
Bell: It was something we shared. Taking photographs like the ones Mary Ellen made and making a film like Streetwise or TINY is not an invisible process – you are there, in the room, an alien with all the stuff needed to make the photograph or record the film. It is a privilege to be in the room and to share these stories of the unfamous.
Filmmaker: How close were you in terms of selecting frames and building your compositions?
Bell: There was no building frames or compositions. Everywhere you looked, there was something going on. It was all caught on the fly — with this access to the story it would be hard to fail.
Filmmaker: Tiny/Erin seems to be a truly bold individual throughout your chronicle of her lifespan. Her utter lack of any internal vetting or filter before the camera, her disregard for self-consciousness and willingness to be depicted warts & all is so remarkable. It seems to connote a truly natural performer — one who is naked before the audience, prepared for and unconcerned with any perspective of her other than her own. At the same time, that’s the way a great number of the Streetwise crew appear — unabashed and pure. Was this what you found, that there was a performative aspect to these lives on the street, and that people felt a vocation to share with you their lives just as you felt compelled to document them?
Bell: Listening to the dialogue in Streetwise, it’s incredible. None of these kids finished school. They had the gift, that ability to speak only the university of Pike Street gives you — to stand up and talk, get what you need. When I look at the transcript of the film, I think, “Who can think of all this stuff?” It’s beautiful and rich. Not just Tiny and Rat and the kids in Streetwise but Tiny and her kids now as well. A relationship that allows you to get close to your subject is necessary for photographs and films like these. The central characters must want to be in the story-making process with you. It’s a matter of trust. Lulu, who was a leader on the street and pretty much controlled Pike Street at that time, allowed Cheryl, Mary Ellen and I to work seamlessly by saying to the kids “Let the old folks do their thing, they’re here to help.”
Filmmaker: The degree of access in both films seems remarkable, & definitely in terms of Streetwise, completely different from the way things would be today.
Bell: Think about the scene in Streetwise where Lulu is confronting the cop. If that happened now, what would happen? At the very least, handcuffs immediately — most likely, something worse. The cops were aware we were there with a camera, but nonetheless, nowadays they would have taken her in.
Filmmaker: For someone who never finished the sixth grade or gained even the most basic semblance of literacy (Tiny can read, and does read often now), Tiny’s life is incredibly accomplished, even when troubled with financial or emotional issues, or ones of addiction and mental health. Her family, the one she always seemed so dead-set on building, even at such a young age, is the kind of outsized brood so many would envy — a clan built around love and care for each other, and for her — even when ridden with conflict. Do you think there’s something to this concept of family, how the marginalized are often pegged as searching for family they never had — or is that unique to Tiny on this scale?
Bell: I have no idea why Tiny wanted 10 kids – five boys and five girls. Maybe she’s making up for the kids I do not have. I do know she loves all of them. You would not want to stand between Tiny and her kids.
Filmmaker: I’m one of five kids and can’t even imagine someone having ten. It seems like something out of another era. Do you feel your and Mary Ellen’s contact and connection with Tiny may have left some impression on her in this way? Your support and constant presence in her life seems, like in a way, you were a part of that family structure she always seemed to be so desperate to create on her own and on her own terms.
Bell: I believe we became part of each other’s family. This is a relationship that has endured 33 years and will continue until we are all no more.
Filmmaker: Not having children of your own, how does that affect you? It seems imposed upon you to have become a sort of unifying, parental figure in common amongst so many disparate individuals. Is there a level of responsibility that goes along with that?
Bell: Some people have told us that seeing the film has inspired them to do something. To actually get up, go out and become a social worker or a teacher. Hopefully we can build on that.
Filmmaker: You never set out to embody that type of role, but in a way it’s sort of placed upon you by the results of the work. That’s a difficult burden.
Bell: Well, it’s not one I foresaw. I think if we can make it work this way — and I can only speak as a filmmaker, not as a social scientist — if the product of what we made is useful to start a conversation, then I’m happy to join in and help others work out how to fix what is so clearly broken.