Shots From the Canon #13: ‘Streetwise’ (Martin Bell, 1984)

Filmmaker Robert Greene considers what makes this Oscar-nominated documentary an "indispensable masterpiece."


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction. In this entry, he looks at Streetwise.

Before the first Harmony Korine/Larry Clark provocation or the phrase “poverty porn” or the unrelenting stream of issue-mentaries that transform life into talking points, a film called Streetwise could have changed the world had its surprising Oscar nomination rightfully placed it alongside the great films of the 1980s. But it wasn’t widely known until fairly recently, despite the VHS tape finding its way into the hands of devoted cinephiles everywhere, giving the film “cult icon” status. Now Streetwise is considered an indispensable masterpiece. Today we nominate it into our new canon.

When director Martin Bell and his wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, along with writer Cheryl McCall, decided to turn their 1983 Life magazine article into a film, they had already won the trust of the community of lost kids, hustlers, prostitutes and vagabonds that roamed the streets of downtown Seattle. The original idea was to upend the city’s marketing moniker, “America’s Most Livable City,” by revealing its dirty, oft-unseen underbelly. The film that resulted is a staggering, if subtle, cinematic achievement, a poetic, attentive piece of filmmaking that hustles as hard as its characters, mirroring their grimy, tragically gorgeous aesthetic. It is a film about dignity, survival and the images we make of ourselves in the face of hardship.

Tiny, Rat, Dewayne and Shadow lead a transfixing cast of characters, all with vivid stories of estrangement, abuse, misunderstanding, violence and broken families. Full of humor, clarity and insight, the film is a series of gripping scenes of street life: conversations, fights and hustles, presented as mesmerizing ellipses, that build understanding and compassion until a viewer feels at home with those who have little access to homes. Direct cinema techniques are employed to draw the audience in, but this is no cold ethnography. Here “documentation” is buried under cinema; self-mythologizing and revealing voice over functions as characters’ thoughts rather than interview. There is a great sense of collaboration between filmmakers and subjects, which only deepens the pathos and tragedy.

Art and hustle intermingle in defiant, powerful ways. Pizza scams, selling blood, pushing cops around, meeting parents in jail are all ways of life, and freedom is the most potent (though certainty not only) drug. There’s no way to tell what’s staged and what’s totally authentic, but it all feels true and alive. These kids hold their cigarettes like movie stars, little midnight cowboys on their own film set, in love stories and miniature westerns, until the heartbreaking realities pile on top of each other and become too much to bear. Emotional, understated, powerful and wrenching, the film is about true intelligence, the resilience of fragile human bodies and hard-earned hope.

The filmmakers have recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish a project revisiting the pro-life teenage prostitute starlet, Tiny, some 30 years after the film’s initial shooting. Who knows if this will be a great movie, but the masterpiece that inspired it is certainly the kind of nonfiction film that makes you wonder what happened to its stars. For now we have only a snapshot, a profound glimpse into a world, and a stirring example of how to properly film it.

Streetwise is currently unavailable, officially, in any format, but you can find copies from its VHS release on YouTube if you look.

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)

#8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)

#9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934)

#10 The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1994)

#11 The ‘Koker’ Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987–1994)

#12 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media ((Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992)