Do yourself a favor and watch that documentary, THESE KIDS GOR THE BEST STYLE EVER!

Streetwise is a 1984 documentary by director Martin Bell, not to be confused with the war journalist Martin Bell. It followed in the wake of a July 1983 LIFE magazine article, “Streets of the Lost,” by Cheryl McCall and the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, the latter of whom is married to Bell.

According to Mark’s 1988 phototext, also named Streetwise, McCall and Mark traveled to Seattle specifically to reveal that even in a town that billed itself as America’s most livable city, there still existed rampant homelessness and desperation. After making connections with several homeless children during the writing of the article, Mark convinced Bell that the children were worthy of his making a documentary based on their lives. McCall and Mark were also instrumental in making the film. Streetwise follows the lives of several homeless teenagers, although it focuses most on 14-year-old Erin Blackwell, a child prostitute who goes by the name of Tiny. Much of the time, Tiny stays at the home of her alcoholic mother, Pat, who seems unfazed by her daughter’s prostitution, calling it a “phase.” Although the film does not explicitly point fingers at social causes for the children’s homelessness, it suggests that parental neglect and irresponsibility lead children to leave home in search of better lives. The children get trapped in a cycle whereby they flee unsatisfactory homes and, once they arrive on the street, attempt to form surrogate families with other street children. These new surrogate families reveal themselves to be likewise unsatisfactory, and so the children seesaw between their former neglectful homes and inadequate street families, a cycle that traps them in limbo. The film humanizes the homeless children of Seattle, but seems not to argue that these particular children are salvageable–they are too wedded to their street lives, however harsh and dangerous. Rather, Streetwise becomes a cautionary tale designed to remind viewers to ensure that their own children do not feel the need to leave home.


Photo book

Mark photographed many of the children throughout the filming of Streetwise and published a photo-textual book of the same name in 1988. The photographs are captioned with quotations from the film. The transcript of Bell’s film appears at the end of the book, with only minor differences. The works are not necessarily in synch. Whereas both film and book show the children to be contemplative, serious, and aware of their dire circumstances, the film reveals a greater range of emotion in the children: Tiny laughing and flirting with Rat (a 16-year-old boy who looks 12), Rat proudly showing off his prowess at Dumpster-diving and scamming pizzas, and more.

[edit] Tiny

In the wake of both the film and the book, Tiny has become something of a photographic celebrity. When Streetwise was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary of 1984, [1] Tiny attended the Oscar ceremony with Bell and Mark. Despite Tiny’s celebrity, however, her life did not radically change tack. Mark has returned to Seattle to photograph Tiny many times since 1983, and photographs of Tiny have appeared in Mark’s later books, which reveal that in the years after the Streetwise projects, Tiny continued her prostitution, became a drug addict, became morbidly obese, and gave birth to nine children fathered by several different men. In the mid-2000s, however, Mark and Bell were able to make a new 23-minute film, Erin, which reveals that Tiny has cleaned up and settled down with a husband and her minor children.

[edit] Plot summary

Streetwise portrays the lives of nine desperate teenagers. Thrown too young into a seedy grown up world, these runaways and castaways survive, but just barely. Rat, the dumpster diver, Tiny, the teenage prostitute, Shellie, the baby-faced blonde, DeWayne, the hustler, all old beyond their years. All underage survivors fighting for life and love on the streets of downtown Seattle, Washington.

[edit] Memorable quotes

Rat: [To Erin in jail] “You can take the ‘ho off the street, but you can’t take the street off the ‘ho.”