Jun 22, 2021
By Dustin Krcatovich
Documentaries rarely come as harrowing as Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise. Spinning off from a photo shoot Mark did for Life Magazine about street kids in Seattle, it is a time capsule of a city worlds away from, but also presaging, the Seattle of today. It is a peek at the early stages of a gentrification that allowed Seattle to go from humble fishing/factory town to prohibitively expensive tech bubble, and of who loses in that deal.
Streetwise was filmed in 1983, around the time that Seattle was increasingly being declared one of the most “livable” cities in the United States. Then as now, that meant a lot of (mostly white) yuppies moving in and pushing the city’s working class to the margins. With that comes economic strife, divorce, abuse, and indeed, a lot of runaway teens.
The wandering youth we see in Streetwise are, to varying degrees, victims of those circumstances. They are escapees from abusive or indifferent homes, who’ve decided a life of dumpster diving, squatting in abandoned motels, or turning to teenage sex work made more sense than whatever was happening in those homes.
The nearly four decades between the initial release of Streetwise and now has not muted its impact one iota. It’s still heartbreaking and infuriating, a beautiful piece of art about very difficult lives.
If Streetwise documents the dawn of Seattle’s yuppification, then Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell shows the result of three decades of fallout. Blackwell, a 14 year old sex worker in Streetwise, is the clear heart of that film, the camera inextricably drawn to her chattiness and wounded vulnerability. Mark and Bell maintained contact with, and continued to film, Blackwell in the ensuing years until Mark’s death in 2015; this feature-length film represents the most recent efforts, capturing Blackwell in her mid-40s.
By the time of Tiny, Blackwell is a mother of 10, living in the further-out suburbs of Seattle. Her kids are running into a lot of the same problems she did: drugs, illness, a little bit too much time in the street. There’s a lot of love in Tiny, but there’s also a lot of unresolved emotional trauma: Blackwell’s relationship with her children is often strained, her relationship with her mother still fraught with crackling tension. People of means might be able to better address the toxicity here, but absent the right medicine, one just ends up picking at scabs and never healing.
Neither Streetwise or Tiny quite qualify as agitprop: though intimate and caring, neither film amounts to a call to arms. Still, if you can walk away from these films not caring about what happens to the people in them, or other people like them, then you might have problems bigger than anything movies can solve.