This week sees the release of Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray package of Streetwise/Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, two documentaries that started their life as a piece for Life magazine on Seattle, which at the time was hailed as America’s “Most livable city”. The article was meant to showcase those left behind and it began a journey documented here by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall when they happened upon a group of kids that would inspire five films (2 features, 3 shorts, all included here) spanning over three decades of their subject’s lives. This was a blind watch, based simply on the blurb on the Criterion site, and I honestly wasn’t prepared for where these films would take me emotionally.
The three primary narrative threads of the first film Streetwise (1984) follows two young hustlers Rat and DeWayne, and Rat’s love interest, a 14 year old prostitute Tiny; who is new to the streets. We witness their tragic stories unfold and intertwine, while the film also showcases the rogues gallery and chaos that surrounds them. Amid the drug busts and street fights, we see Tiny flirting with the sex industry, which her alcoholic mother dismisses as a “passing phase”, rather than trying to stop her; obviously influenced by hundreds of dollars the 13 year-old can pull in for a “date”. While Rat is squatting in an abandoned hotel and dumpster diving to survive, DeWayne just tries to get by and ride out his father’s prison sentence for burglary and arson. These horrors are only compounded by the young age and naïveté of our protagonists.
Since the film was shot in 1983 and the age range of our subjects appear to be mostly in the early to mid-teens, there is a lack of self awareness on screen, and the subjects share a frankness about their crimes and transgressions that just wouldn’t happen today. It’s equal parts shocking and heartbreaking as a theme that begins to play itself out in the first film is the predatory nature of the older children, who try their hand at emulating the older hustlers by pimping out their younger female counterparts for a quick buck. We see them trying this lifestyle out, with very real consequences for the young naive girls who we witness get into car after car, not sure if we will see them again.
While the filmmakers are obviously invested in and empathetic to their subjects, there’s a distance kept in an attempt to keep an objective point of view as we see the kids make decisions both good and bad. That arm’s length approach can be painful at times, as the kids fall into the cyclical behavior of life on the streets and its vices of crime, violence, drugs and prostitution. When the first film wraps up, we’ve lost one of the three and the lives of those featured are forever changed, and honestly so is the viewer. I’ve seen a lot of transgressive cinema in my day, but Streetwise eviscerated me with its raw narrative, that documented these lives that could have turned out much different if only these children were born into different circumstances.
There are three shorts included that take place in between the first feature and the second feature, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. This film picks up with Tiny 30 years later with 10 kids; six of which now live with her. The year’s haven’t been kind to the bright eyed 14 gawky year-old we saw only a few hours ago, who is now on methadone, overweight and in a loveless marriage. Through interviews with Tiny and those around her, we discover most of these kids are from when she still worked the streets, but she eventually met a man who was willing to try to make a family with her. It’s clear that Tiny is still struggling to with her demons, even three decades later. But the really meat of the drama here is how those demons have now come for her children reinforcing the cyclical nature of addiction and poverty.
The disc comes with HD restoration of the 16mm of Streetwise and a HD digital master of Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, both supervised by director Martin Bell. Also included are four short films, a new commentary by Martin Bell and two featurettes. For the completionist’s sake you even get the original 1983 Life magazine article about the subjects of Streetwise that started it all, accompanied by reflections on Blackwell written by Mark. It’s a comprehensive package that does an amazing job at contextualizing these films while also digging into how Streetwise turned into a passion project and life’s work for photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who passed away in 2015.
While I loved both Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, I wouldn’t recommend them to everyone. It’s not an easy double bill, but its important that these kinds of stories be seen and heard. These films function as part time capsule and part slice of the human condition, that show a comprehensive arc of cause of effect, eventually rippling through three generations of women. Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell, could have easily exploited their subjects for a quick buck, but instead humanize them in a way that gives the audience way to empathize and identify with this cast of lost dreamers who just wanted to find a way out.