Tiny is a 14-year-old pixieish prostitute who turned her first trick before she was sexually mature. Rat, 17, spends his time panhandling, "dumpster diving" for food and roller-skating through the abandoned hotel in which he makes his home. Shadow, 18, a self-proclaimed "playboy" and hustler, gives blood for quick cash and gets his kicks by dyeing his hair and submitting his arm to a tattoo artist's needle.
These are just three of the troubled and oddly endearing characters that dominate "Streetwise," an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Cheryl McCall, Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell about the runaway teen-agers who populate Seattle's seamy Pike Street district. The film, which opened Friday at the Inner Circle, grew out of an acclaimed 1983 Life magazine article, "Streets of the Lost," in which writer McCall and photographer Mark created a graphic and unsentimental portrait of young people as both victims and survivors.
"It was an amazing assignment," recalls Mark, whose work can be seen in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Paris Match, as well as in book-length photo essays on such diverse topics as the prostitutes of Bombay and life in the ward of a mental hospital. "In the beginning the kids were suspicious, thinking we were cops. But when they saw us coming back day after day, and after we showed them some of our previously published work, they knew we could be trusted."
Listening to the runaways' stories, watching them hustle, fight, joke and form relationships both tenuous and solid, the two women decided that film was the only medium fully capable of capturing this unsettling world. After enlisting the talent of Mark's husband, British film director and cinematographer Martin Bell, and securing initial financial backing from McCall's friends Willie and Connie Nelson, the collaborators -- now part of a six-member crew -- returned to Pike Street.
"We were there for 2 1/2 months," says McCall, "crammed into a house located just far enough away so that the adult pimps and gangsters couldn't follow us. They're the ones who control the kids, use them up and throw them away. They threatened me constantly, pushed me up against walls, things like that." Despite the danger, the crew spent many hours hanging out on the street "with the derelicts and weirdos," waiting for something to happen.
"When the kids first saw the camera they mugged and and acted," remembers Mark. "But after a while the novelty wore off, and some of them forgot it was there." The team's patience paid off -- soon they were accompanying their subjects to clinics, detention centers, various crash pads, even jail. "The courts, probation officers and social workers we dealt with were terrific," Mark says. "But we did have a problem with one newspaper that was furious with us, claiming we had attacked Seattle. Because we were New Yorkers, it wasn't our job to expose this [problem]."
Why did they choose Seattle, a place often described in near-utopian terms? The primary reason, the filmmakers explain, was McCall's familiarity with the city. Another was the fact that because Pike Street is a far more contained area than comparably squalid districts in Los Angeles, New York City or other urban centers, it is easier for the police to track down youngsters who have disappeared. Perhaps the least concrete but most convincing reason for shooting in this town, says Mark, is the one that goes: If it could happen in Seattle, it could happen anywhere.
Among the most telling and emotionally searing sequences in "Streetwise" are those that focus on the teen-agers' interactions with their parents: Tiny chatting and bickering with her passive, alcoholic mom; scrawny DeWayne visiting his arsonist father in prison; moon-faced Shellie dialing home from a phone booth and lashing out at her thrice-wed mother.
"I can't tell you how much pain went into the making of this film," sighs McCall. "These kids would sit and spill out their whole lives to us." The oldest daughter in a family of eight children, McCall, currently a staff writer at Life, has spent much of her career writing about "children in distress" -- sexually abused children, children with cancer and, most recently (and in collaboration with Mark), the children of Ethiopia.
She characterizes the runaways as two distinct types: those who lead a "Huck Finn existence" and the "desperate throwaways." She cites Rat as a Huck Finn type, a basically middle-class kid who sets up an orderly corner in an abandoned hotel, does his laundry, folds his clothes and wisely hooks up with an older friend for support and protection. But Rat is an exception. Even if these kids develop considerable survival skills, their chances for a better life are slim.
The filmmakers' involvement with Tiny, Rat and the other young denizens of Pike Street continues today. "We've maintained contact with almost all of them," Mark says. "We get all these collect phone calls. They even call the sound man in England collect." Shadow, it seems, has been in and out of mental institutions. Rat, convicted of grand theft auto after he stole a motorcycle, has been behind bars for 16 months. And McCall recently ran into Tiny in Los Angeles.
"I took her to meet Willie and Connie [Nelson], and she was just thrilled," McCall reports. "She's doing all right, but she's still on the street."