Streetwise, the 1984 documentary by director Martin Bell, is a harrowing and often beautiful film depicting the lives of several homeless children living in Seattle, WA during the early 1980s. The project began as a photo assignment for Life Magazine given to Mary Ellen Mark (Bell’s wife) which hoped to show America that the seedy urban underbelly was not mutually exclusive to cities like New York and Chicago but was instead a nationwide epidemic that also infected America’s Most Livable City, Seattle. Soon after Mark returned with her husband to reconnect with the children and film what became Streetwise.
Shot impeccably from a tripod with hardly any handheld camera footage, Bell’s mastery of his craft lends a certain feeling of unbelievability to the footage as the events and dialogue unfold. Completely candid interactions between the children as well as with every adult whether it be parent, police officer, nurse or soliciting sexual predator leads you to believe that what you are watching is either an entire cast of oscar worthy performances or the unique ability of a director and camera to remain invisible to his subjects long enough to capture them with zero pretense and complete honesty.
Long out of print and almost impossible to rent, the entire documentary has recently surfaced on youtube. All of the clips which make up the entire documentary are compiled below.
photo by Mary Ellen Mark