Jun 21, 2016
“Stark and Extremely Dangerous”: Talking to Martin Bell about Streetwise and Tiny, at BAMcinemaFest
In 1983, Life magazine assigned photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall to cover the youth homelessness problem in Seattle, a city chosen specifically because it had recently been named the country’s “most livable,” thus illustrating the hushed-up ubiquity of the epidemic. Soon after, Mark and her husband, director Martin Bell, were commissioned to make a film covering the same ground. The result was the brutal-but-beautiful Streetwise, a film full of thrilling vérité cinematography, cocky and battered sneak thieves, and not a few hard truths.
With BAMcinemaFest showing a new restoration of Streetwise along with a new follow-up documentary about one of the earlier film’s subjects, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, and a large show of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of Blackwell currently up at Aperture’s gallery (with accompanying book), New York is having something of a Streetwise moment, 33 years after the initial Life piece. The moment serves in part as a tribute to the wide-ranging career of Mark, who died in 2015.
We recently exchanged some emails with Bell.
Brooklyn Magazine: How do you account for the enduring interest and appeal of Streetwise?
Martin Bell: The themes of this film are as true today as they were in ‘83—only the phones have changed.
Tiny incorporates footage of Erin and her family from a few different decades. How often did you and Mark reconnect with Erin?
Mary Ellen and I went back to visit, photograph and film Tiny in Seattle in 1990, 2004, 2014 and 2015. Mary Ellen also photographed Erin in 1986 and 1991, and I went back in 2016.
You were Director of Photography on both Streetwise and Tiny, which feature notably different styles (the former’s grittiness compared with the latter’s pictorial, static-camera compositions). That’s generalizing, but was it a conscious decision to shift the style for the new film? I wondered if it connected with things Mark said in interviews about Photoshop falseness supplanting realism in photography.
It was not a conscious change of style between the two films. In fact, I am not aware I have a style of shooting in nonfiction work—it’s just run and gun. For me it’s just catching the moment—the story only happens once. When you see it, the camera and sound better be running or else you’re fired.
The main differences between the two films are story content and location. The difference in look is because Streetwise was shot on 16mm film and Tiny is shot digitally.
How was Streetwise funded? Willie and Connie Nelson helped?
Streetwise was funded by Willie and Connie Nelson. It was their generous, unconditional gift that made the film possible. It allowed Cheryl, Mary Ellen and I to go back to Seattle to make the film shortly after the Life magazine piece “Streets of the Lost” was published.
Was Cheryl McCall very involved in the production and, if so, what was her role?
Cheryl McCall was the reporter for the Life article. She and Mary Ellen worked together during the filming of Streetwise making connections on and beyond Pike Street. They were like two Jack Russell terriers, never letting go of any element that came up nor accepting any rejection that would put something beyond our reach—no door remained closed for long. Without their effort the film would not be what it became.
There’s an incredible naturalism to Streetwise. Was this achieved instantly or was there an initial feeling of distrust and over-awareness of the camera to hurdle? To what degree do you think the kids were performing?
Having had Mary Ellen and Cheryl working with the kids on Pike Street in April ’83 for the Life piece helped us get to work immediately when we arrived to film in September. Their prior relationship was invaluable.
We were given access to Pike Street by Lou Ellen Couch. Lou Lou was the “boss” of Pike Street—she told the street kids, “Let these old people do what they need to do—they’re here to help.”
The first night we were filming in Seattle, at the Dismas Center, a young woman I had been filming for some time suddenly decided she did not want to be in the film. I opened the film magazine and gave her the shot film. All the kids in the room saw the exchange. They knew we were not there to steal.
The kids are “performing” as much as anyone confronted with a group of film people wagging cameras and sound equipment at them would be. Real life for the street kids is a continuous search for the next advantage. It is a stark and extremely dangerous business. After a while, the camera and sound gizmos present on the street every day—between Labor Day to Halloween—became secondary to what has to be done to get through the important stuff of their day.
There’s an artfulness to much of the editing (credited to Nancy Baker and Jonathan Oppenheim)—reaction shots between characters on different sides of the street and so forth—that can lead you to forget you’re watching a documentary. Did you set out to strike a balance between capturing raw reality and crafting a story?
Nancy Baker was the editor of Streetwise. It was she who brought the 50 hours of footage down to 10 hours or so in a matter of weeks. It was Nancy’s extraordinary gift of shaping the dailies into the Streetwise reality that gave the film a seemingly theatrical feel.
I did not want to make a film with talking heads. I wanted the film to be just like a movie—an approximation of reality—nonfiction. All A roll, no B. Keith Desmond, the sound recordist, kept a log of how much “good” film we shot a day. He estimated we were making two to three minutes a day. A good batting average. Having Keith’s beautiful recording of interviews with the kids as clean audio track, allowed the camera to be free—it also freed Nancy in her ability to seamlessly cut between live-action and voiceover.
The parents in the film don’t come off too well, from Erin’s mother referring to her 14 year-old daughter’s prostitution as “just a phase,” to Shellie’s mother dismissing her husband’s past molestation of Shellie. Dewayne’s father let you eavesdrop on his painful prison visit conversation with his son, and even let your camera into the funeral home after the 16-year-old hanged himself. Were you surprised at the access and did any of them resist the film later?
In the case of Streetwise, I think a lot of the access had to do with Mary Ellen and Cheryl having established a relationship with the kids and some of the parents while on the Life magazine story. I am not aware that anyone objected to the film after it came out.
How much did the relationship between Dewayne and his father inspire [Bell’s 1992 narrative feature] American Heart?
Dewayne and his father, Lemar Pomeroy, were the inspiration for American Heart.
Mary Ellen, Peter Silverman (the screenwriter) and I were approached by Jeff Bridges, who had a real interest in the subject matter. With Jeff Bridges’s help we finally got the movie made.
Who are some of your filmmaking influences?
Federico Fellini, Andrzej Wajda, Francis Coppola, George Miller, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Francois Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica, Mikhail Kalatozov, Andrei Tarkovsky and, again, Federico Fellini.
Of all the subjects in the earlier film, why was it Erin Blackwell whom you and Mary Ellen Mark chose to keep chronicling?
From the first moment Mary Ellen saw the then 13-year-old “Tiny” stepping out of a cab in the parking lot of the Monastery nightclub in 1983, she knew Tiny was a star.
Mary Ellen called me in London—she was so excited—and told me she’d met this 13-year-old girl and some of her street friends and that they would make a great subject for a film. Something we could work on together. It had been a goal for us ever since we first met in 1980. She said “Tiny was beautiful, engaging and impossible to forget.” Mary Ellen had a great sense of story.
Tiny is not sparing about the dire aspects of Blackwell and her family’s situation, but it’s still a less bleak work than Streetwise, in large part because Blackwell is a figure of near-heroic resilience. Was it important to you to produce a somewhat more hopeful portrait?
The original plan for the film was for it to be a short to support Mary Ellen’s book and exhibition, “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited.” It got out of hand. It was important to Mary Ellen and I that this new film be as true to the actual story of Erin’s life, wherever that may lead. Producing an expectation of what the future holds would be false. Is it more hopeful—possibly? But always expect the unexpected.
Do you feel protective of Blackwell?
I do. I count her as a friend.
Are you still in touch with [Streetwise subject] Rat?
Yes. I am about to finish the sound mix on a 15-minute film I made about Rat which I began filming the day after Christmas last year. Rat and I have been in touch since 1983. He has had a very interesting life.
A 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research found that child homelessness in the United States was at all-time high. While you’re an artist, not an advocate or congressman, do you have any ideas about what needs to be done to alleviate the problem?
On Thanksgiving of 2015, we brought the Tiny film to Seattle to show Erin—to get her approval before locking the film. Julia (associate producer), Hollis (camera assistant) and I sat with her while she watched the film. When the film ended she sat silent for a moment and then said, “Oh Martin, it’s a circle.”
In 1983, when we’d finished shooting the film, Mary Ellen and I invited Erin to come back and live with us in New York. We told her there would be one condition—she had to go to school. She said “I ain’t going to no school,” and turned us down. Life was just too exciting back then—she was newly free, free as a bird.
Having seen Erin and her family over the years and through the many extremes of her life, I think the only way of breaking the “circle” is to start intervention very early in a child’s life. To me, the logical place for that work to begin would be through our education system. Poverty is a complex and pressing problem for us to solve. Our hope is that witnessing the everyday life of this family through this film made over 33 years will spark a discussion that could provoke change. The answer is out there waiting to be found.
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