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Martin Bell's 'Streetwise'

By Rachel Grady

By Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

"I love to fly," says a gravelly teenage voice in the opening sequence of Streetwise. "The only bad thing about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world," he continues. The camera is focused on the jean-clad body of a skinny teenage boy, standing on the railing of a wharf at dawn, poised to swan dive into the Seattle harbor.

We soon learn that the boy is Rat, a 17-year-old homeless kid who makes his living by picking pockets and "rolling queers." He lives in an abandoned hotel, eats out of a dumpster and clings naively to aspirations for a normal life with a wife, picket fence and steady job.

Originally inspired by a 1983 Life magazine essay by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall, Streetwise is a haunting portrait of teenagers living on the streets of Seattle's Tenderloin district. Besides Rat, we meet Tiny, Dewayne and their friends--prostitutes, hustlers, drug addicts and robbers. The filmmaker opts not to utilize traditional in-sync interviews, but instead runs the sometimes childlike, sometimes world-weary voices of the characters over beautifully composed portraits and street scenes. The disembodied voices over poetic imagery are combined with simple but razor-sharp vérité scenes that keep the kids both inaccessible and completely vulnerable.

Shot on film (56 hours total, a lean amount for many docs today), using available light and no self-conscious camera moves, much of Streetwise is filmed from a medium or long distance from the subjects, giving the film a natural rawness that demands its viewer to pay attention. Beautifully edited by Nancy Baker, the scenes unfold slowly, drawing us into the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the characters. Awkward silences and uncomfortable exchanges are allowed to run their course, especially between the odd encounter of the kids and their deadbeat parents (Dewayne's visit to his incarcerated father is one of the film's most powerful scenes--his father rags on him for biting his nails while he himself is doing time for robbery). We as an audience are not allowed to simply gawk from a distance but must squirm along with the protagonists.

Director Martin Bell returns several times for observational sequences in the Tenderloin, rife with fights, arrests and human despair. Here, especially, the brilliant sound design of this film is evident. Bell uses the hypnotic sounds of Seattle--the far-off foghorn, seagulls, the wind--in concert with the cacophony of the Tenderloin district. Banjos, panhandlers and street preachers compete with the Eurhythmics emanating from a cheap boom box. 

In an age when video allows us to shoot (and often overshoot) hundreds of hours of tape, and when documentaries freely borrow from the fast paced and choppy language of television, Streetwise, a languidly paced character study, is a refreshing reminder of the simple and quiet beauty the medium can achieve. Bell is not worried his audience will get bored and abandon him, change the channel or opt for a more exciting experience. He shows a confidence in his material and in his audience.

Having made two films that focus on children living in the margins of American society (The Boys of Baraka and Jesus Camp), we deeply appreciate the grim beauty of Bell's film, especially the elegant craft on display here. It is a film worth revisiting.


Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are the directors/producers of the Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp.