Architecture on Film: Streetwise / The Houseless Shadow

Weds 17 October 2012 6.30pm

  • Streetwise, courtesy Martin Bell
  • Streetwise, courtesy Martin Bell
  • The Houseless Shadow, courtesy LUX

At a time of rising UK homelessness and economic uncertainty, a double bill of films exploring life on the street. The incredible Streetwise – a 1984 documentary on street kids in America's 'most liveable city' – meets William Raban's contemporary invocation of Charles Dickens' nocturnal promenades of urban London.


A celebrated piece of journalism for Life magazine by photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall, led to this landmark cinéma vérité documentary on runaways and teen homelessness, on the streets of one of America’s most prosperous cities.

Nothing was scripted. People think it was because they were so open, but absolutely nothing was scripted... It’s just that somehow there was such a connection with these kids... They were really into the drama of their lives. They were living a kind of a fairy tale — a twisted fairy tale, but a fairy tale — away from their families, often away from homes that were not so happy. We became witnesses to that, so they let their lives unfold in front of us.
- Mary Ellen Mark, on Streetwise

Seeking to discover the underside of life in Seattle, billed at the time as America’s ‘most liveable city,’ this Sundance winning and Academy Award nominated film proceeds objectively and without moralising sentiment to present the pragmatics of hustling, child prostitution and drug abuse, unflinchingly presented in the protagonist’s wistful own words. A candid window into young lives navigating the urban terrain to their own advantage, wherein the street becomes family, home and business venture.

With music by Tom Waits.

USA 1984, Dir. Martin Bell, 91 mins

The Houseless Shadow

Renowned British artist and filmmaker William Raban updates an essay by Charles Dickens for the 21st century.

Dickens’ text, full of psycho-geographical musing and social commentary that remain full of insight 150 years later, provides the voiceover to a journey around contemporary London by night. A flaneur’s poetic and empathetic journey into homelessness offers a counterpoint to Streetwise’s exploration of the reality of life on the street.

UK 2011, Dir. William Raban, 19 mins

Programme Notes by Steve Rose

Writer and critic for The Guardian

Welcome to the USA, circa 1984. The Los Angeles Olympics dazzles the world with its display of American athleticism and showmanship – Carl Lewis, Lionel Richie and jet packs. At the cinema, teenagers are flocking to Footloose, Beverley Hills Cop and Ghostbusters. Dallas and Dynasty rule the small screen. On his way to a landslide presidential re-election, Ronald Reagan is reminding voters how bad the recession was before he came to power, telling them, “it's morning in America.”

And then there's Streetwise, a raw, unsentimental documentary on teenage runaways in Seattle that same year. Morning hasn't come to this America. It could be a different country. Homeless teenagers live in abandoned buildings, and survive by prostitution, petty theft, begging for change and dumpster-diving. Rape, violence, abuse, drugs, crime and mental health issues are all part of everyday life for these children, but it's difficult to find any trace of them elsewhere in the American mediascape of the era.

Streetwise came out of a 1983 photo essay in LIFE magazine, by writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whose husband, Martin Bell, directed the documentary. The original article has some shocking statistics. More than a million 11 to 17-year-olds ran away from home every year in the US, it claimed. There were 500,000 under-17s involved in prostitution. Every year, 5,000 unidentified teenagers were buried in unmarked graves, and another 50,000 simply disappeared.

It's harrowing stuff, but from our 21st century perspective, nobody in Streetwise seems to treat it as such. One mother describes her 14-year-old daughter's prostitution as, “just a phase she's going through right now”. When another girl confronts her mother about her abusive stepfather, the mother replies, “Yeah but he doesn't do it any more.” The kids themselves often seem relaxed, chatty, playful, dreamily detached from their depressing situation, as if insulated by youth. You could almost fool yourself you were watching a John Hughes movie – until a street fight breaks out, or a young girl starts listing her sexually transmitted diseases or injuries inflicted on her. It's a testament to the filmmakers how open these kids are. Perhaps they were grateful for the attention.

As well as a social condition, Streetwise also captures an urban one. Seattle is regularly regarded as one of “America's most livable cities”, but at this time, the wealthier citizens had retreated to the sanctuary of suburbia. Downtown is full of loan shops, fast food outlets and empty properties, such as the abandoned hotel Rat and Jack live in. But the streets are still teeming with life: teenagers, vagrants, pimps, preachers, buskers, police, and people with nothing better to do than “hang out”. People know each other by name. They see each other every day and enact their dramas in the open. There's an intimacy and an anonymity to this streetscape. An evangelist and a hobo argue over homelessness then part with a handshake. Then a faceless driver picks up an underage prostitute in broad daylight without raising an eyebrow. As the title suggests, there's a common street language here, and it's not the same one we speak today. CCTV, smartphones, social media and Starbucks have changed the nature of urban sociability.

The city and its people change, but urban deprivation changes very little, a point underlined by William Raban's short film. The Houseless Shadow illustrates Charles Dickens' essay Night Walks – a haunting description of his nocturnal, insomniac promenades around a lonely Victorian London -- with images of today's (or rather tonight's) rain-slicked capital. Dickens' description of almost stumbling over a rough sleeper on the steps of St Martin's Church, “a beetle-browed hair-lipped youth of twenty” with “a bundle of rags on”, could have happened in 1861 or yesterday. Homelessness is on the rise again, in the US and in Britain. According to the charity Shelter, the number homeless people in Britain rose 18 percent in the final quarter of last year, and 36 percent in London. With rising unemployment and repossession rates, high property prices and a continuing housing undersupply, we could be facing a “perfect storm”. Right now it doesn't feel like morning in America or in Britain.

On a more hopeful note, Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark revealed remained in contact with their Streetwise subjects. Many of them are dead or in prison but some made it out. The film's star, Erin Charles, aka “Tiny” is now drug-free and happily married. Mark has photographed her regularly in the intervening years, and the pair made a short film about her in 2006. She has 10 children – exactly the number she wished for in 1983. And she lives in the suburbs.

Download programme notes here.