Erin on Pike Street © Mary Ellen Mark, All Rights Reserved

A Documentary Film Three Decades In the Making

Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell's Oscar-winning documentary "Streetwise," and its follow-up "Tiny: The Life Of Erin Blackwell," are an extraordinary portrait of life in America.

by Rick Paulas
Oct 6 2019, 9:42am

Erin on Pike Street © Mary Ellen Mark, All Rights Reserved

In 1983, photographer Mary Ellen Mark and journalist Cheryl McCall took an investigatory trip to Seattle, Washington, which had recently billed itself as “the most livable city in America.” The result was a Life magazine piece called “Streets of the Lost” that focused on a group of street kids that had slipped through the cracks of this livable town, and would inform much of Mark’s iconic work for the rest of her life.

Soon after examining the scene through photography, Mark returned with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, and they made a documentary. The result was Streetwise, 91 minutes of stories revolving around eight kids between the ages of 14-18 who spent their lives hustling—robbing, scamming, sex work, squatting, panhandling—to survive the streets. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984, Tom Waits did the music. It’s truly an incredible document.

The film was recently remastered by Janus Films, and has been screening around the U.S. on a road trip with Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a follow-up that Bell made 30 years later. It catches up with one of the main Streetwise kids—now 44 years old and raising 10 kids—and works as both a Streetwise epilogue and retrospective-slash-obituary of Mary Ellen Mark, who died in 2015.

GARAGE reached Martin Bell by email to talk about these two films which, when paired, create a stunning, decades-in-the-making achievement.

tiny mary ellen mark streetwise
"Tiny in Her Halloween Costume," © Mary Ellen Mark, All Rights Reserved

One of the great things about the two films is how they showcase problems that low-income folks have dealt with in two distinct eras. What do you believe are some of the commonalities and differences?
Thirty-two years separate the films. In this span, I’m not sure the fundamental cause of dysfunction has changed. I think they reveal how important having a caring family is—whatever form that takes. And school. And luck. Hearing the stories from the streets makes me realize how lucky I was to be born into the bed I was.

The parenting lessons Tiny learned from Pat [her mother] were limited, and ill-prepared her for the ten children she would raise. But despite all the chaos, Tiny has held the family together. If Tiny had stronger social services support when she first started truanting school, her story may well have turned out differently.

Streetwise has such a kinetic feel through its editing. How much film were you working with and what was the trimming process like?
After 56 days, we had 50 hours of film and 180 rolls of audio tapes. Nancy Baker was the editor, and she sliced the dailies down to 10 hours within a matter of weeks. Her sense of what the film could be became evident immediately as she assembled and defined the characters and shaped the story in the best way the material allowed.

It seems easy now to stay unobtrusive with phone cameras, but 1980s filming necessitated boom microphones and massive cameras. How did you get everyone to open up so much?
It’s impossible to be invisible carrying a 16mm Arriflex camera. Same for Keith Desmond carrying a Nagra tape recorder with three Micron radio microphones and a Senheisser gun mic. We were all very present. You must be accepted by the people you are filming to make this.

Mary Ellen and Cheryl had won that trust. I, on the other hand, had my test the first night of filming. I shot almost a full magazine of film on Chrissie, one of the kids, when she turned to me and said, “I do not want to be in your film.” The full room turned to see what would happen. I opened the magazine and gave Chrissie the film I’d shot. Everyone saw and in that instant they all understood we were not there to steal anything.

One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when you find out what happened to one of the kids. Your film depicts the reactions of the other kids, but what was your and Mary Ellen's reaction when this occurred?
We just finished editing the film when a Juvenile Parole Counselor phoned us. We flew to Seattle to film the funeral. This tragic moment with the open coffin and his father handcuffed to a prison guard dramatically transformed the film and our understanding of the consequences of street life. [Their] death was a sharp reminder of the devastating effects of dysfunctional families and poverty.

When Mary Ellen, Cheryl, and I went back to Seattle with the completed film we set up a 16mm projector where we made our audio studio. The kids came at the end of their day and sat on the floor to watch. It started with the audience laughing and shouting out the names of each of the characters as they appeared—it was hoots and hollers.

But as the story unfolds, the banter subsided. They watched in silence as their lives played out—revealing things they did not know of each other. The only sound was the film’s soundtrack and the clatter of the projector. The film ended. The kids got up to leave to go back out onto the street. One of the kids came up to me and said, “I want to hit somebody, but I don’t know who to hit.”

Tiny offers a raw and unflinching look into Erin’s life. Was this always part of the plan?
Since the early 1990s, Mary Ellen and I had worked with Tiny and her family. The publisher, Aperture, asked Mary Ellen to make a book of these photographs of Tiny’s life. I thought I would make a short film to support the book. Then, the plan changed when Mary Ellen was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood cancer.

I wanted to make a record of the work she’d done with Tiny and her family. An echo of Mary Ellen’s book, the film would look at what poverty can do to a family viewed over the course of 33 years. The conceit would be to have Erin and Mary Ellen in Erin’s kitchen looking back over her life as Tiny slowly became Erin, a mother of 10 children. We started a Kickstarter campaign and began making what became the film in January 2014.

How did the kids respond to the release of the original Streetwise?
Streetwise was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984. [Probation officer] Jerry Esterly brought Tiny and Kim to Los Angeles for the ceremony. The morning of the ceremony, at breakfast, a fight broke out between the two girls over who was the star. A Hollywood makeup artist was brought in to patch the damage.

When Streetwise did not get the award, Tiny ripped the boutonniere from her tuxedo lapel and stomped on it. That’s showbiz for you.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Ellen Mark