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Street Life

[Around Town] Homelessness was the theme for ‘Street Life’, October’s instalment of the Architecture on Film series

Summary: A photo essay for Life magazine by photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall led to Streetwise, a documentary directed by Mary’s husband Martin Bell in 1984.

This piece of cinéma vérité follows the lives of homeless teenagers in Seattle (dubbed America’s most liveable city) as they go about trying to make their living on the streets through begging, hustling and child prostitution. The film also encounters some of the teenagers’ interactions with the adults who are there to help them, such as a social worker, a sexual health advisor and, in a couple of cases, their parents.

It was followed by short film The Houseless Shadow (dir. William Raban, 2011) which uses Charles Dickens’ short essay, Night Walks – about the author’s insomnia-driven rambles across London at night – as the commentary for a montage of shots of the contemporary city. As the film progresses, footage moves from the party-goers of Soho, to the quiet last hours of late night fast food outlets, to the first stir of the city at dawn. As a counterbalance to Streetwise, this film depicts the freedom of rootless wandering through our urban space.

Highlights: Earlier that day, I had seen Love Story (dir. Florian Habricht, 2011), screened as part of the London Film Festival, which revolves around filmed contributions from ordinary residents in New York. Here, the director focuses on people who dress ‘alternatively’ and look unlike those we usually see on camera (such as the elderly, a transsexual and a homeless man), or who might not articulate themselves in the way we are used to seeing on film. In all, it had the effect of drawing cheap laughs from the audience. Seeing Streetwise straight afterwards reinforced just how sympathetic and non-judgmental Martin Bell’s direction was in allowing marginalised individuals to convey their stories.

Low points: Streetwise was filmed in 1984 – it would have been good to know how much (if at all) the situation in Seattle has changed since then.

Curator’s comment:Streetwise has been rarely shown in the UK, and its intimacy with its protagonists – a range of early teens hustling their way across the streets of Seattle – presents a lens onto a different kind of urbanism that turns the street into family, business venture, refuge and playground… [The film] is at once heartbreaking, illuminating and wise, and demands to be seen by anyone with an interest in social geography and urbanism, or just great vérité-style documentary filmmaking.’ Justin Jaeckle, curator of public programme, Architecture Foundation

Final word: Almost 30 years later, Streetwise has not lost its edge in depicting the problems faced by the homeless. Paired with The Houseless Shadow, both films vividly depict how the city can become an alien space when its inhabitants are forced to wander its streets.


The next Architecture on Film screening will take place at the Barbican Centre on Tuesday 11 December at 7pm. Entitled ‘A Night At The Museum’, it will include a screening of Le Centre Georges Pompidou (dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1977) about the opening day of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and Cloud Island (dir. Fiona Tan, 2010), which follows the residents of an island in Japan as they prepare for the opening of the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum.

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