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The Real 'Rent'

[whitespace] Dark End of the Street
Shot for Shot: HBO's 'The Dark End of the Street' captures the daily horrors and fatalistic camaraderie of San Francisco's heroin addicts.

Director Steven Okazaki documents young SF junkies

By Michelle Goldberg

The culture of san francisco is, at best, ambivalent about heroin. The city's romance with drug lore thrives--witness the rapturous reception of Rent--while its hostility toward smack-addicted street kids keeps mounting. In Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, a documentary set to air on HBO on April 14, Oscar-winning director Steven Okazaki humanizes the kids we see every day passed out in doorways, huddled on sidewalks or begging for change on Haight Street. Okazaki followed five young addicts for three years as they struggled in a world of prostitution, dealing and SRO hotels. It's harrowing and graphic--there are endless shots of kids shooting up in their thighs and necks and between their toes, hustling on Polk and Capp streets and nodding in rancid rooms with blood-spattered walls. But the movie was also made with real compassion and respect for its desperate subjects, neither romanticizing nor condescending to them. They come across mostly as smart, funny, incredibly fucked-up kids who through a crazy combination of reckless youthful curiosity and self-destructive impulses have found themselves locked into the dark side of the city.

Me: How did you go about getting the kids to trust you?

Okazaki: I was working on another project about HIV-positive young adults in San Francisco, and I met up with a needle exchange that was specifically for young people. The first day I was out there one of the kids was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Another kid noticed it, and there was a little literary discussion. They were talking about William Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud. It just seemed not to be your typical drug addict conversation. I decided to make a film about heroin at that point, but there was a lot of media taking advantage of the kids--the film crews would come in at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and often they'd pay the kids to shoot up. There wasn't a lot of respect for the media, and I decided not to jump in. I just hung out and volunteered at the needle exchange for about six months, passing out muffins and stuff like that.

Me: Why did they participate? Especially Tracy--she has a previous conviction, and yet she's dealing heroin onscreen. That could get her in a lot of trouble.

Okazaki: What they generally said was they wanted to be an example for other kids. This was their one altruistic act. On the other hand, they also thought it would be cool to have a film crew following them around. For the first couple months we'd be walking down the street, and their friends would say, 'Hey, you movie star,' and they liked that. But once we were inside their hotel rooms they dropped the self-consciousness.

I don't think any of the kids worried about the police. They would get busted off and on, but really, the police were rarely a presence. The kids shoot up fairly openly--we filmed in the alley next to the Galaxy Theater in broad daylight. There's not a lot of policing of prostitutes, particularly the boys, and they're often really young. The youngest person in the film is 18 for legal reasons, but there were plenty of 14-, 15-, 16-year-old drug addicts and prostitutes.

Me: Were you ever tempted to intervene?

Okazaki: We had to be really careful that we didn't become too big a part of their lives, because then we'd get into their schemes. Initially our idea was to stay with them all day, but then they couldn't make money. One of the worst days we had was early on with a couple that's not in the film. The girl was 18 and she had an older boyfriend and we were with them all day. They were panhandling and they didn't make enough money because we were around them. At the end of the day they went into a panic and I realized that panic was partially caused by us. The girl had done prostitution a couple times, but she was not a professional. Her boyfriend said there's no way for us to get money except for you to go out. It was the only time I ever gave anyone money. I thought, She's going to go out and have sex when they could have panhandled it. I gave them $20 and then we stopped filming them, because we had made a mistake, we had affected their lives too much.

Me: You must have gotten really close to them over three years. Did you have to distance yourself emotionally in order to stay sane?

Okazaki: If you're around it constantly, you start accepting aspects of the lifestyle. You're focused on getting enough film, you're used to the misery and it doesn't surprise you. I wouldn't feel depression as much as a real anger. These kids are in constant contact from early on in their lives with inept police and social workers. They live in abusive homes, and then regularly they're moved into abusive foster care. Then they're in jail and there's an opportunity for them to clean up--they kick the drug and they're in there for six months, but there's no counseling, no rehab. Often the kids get tied into really bad methadone programs. It's like everyone's giving you permission to fuck up your life. There's so little help. What is the city of San Francisco doing? It's created one of the worst drug scenes in the nation.

Me: What do you mean by "created"?

Okazaki: The law enforcement is really spotty. The drug scene is just very open. I don't want to sound like a Republican, but an enormous amount of welfare and food stamp money goes into drugs. That's the city's money, and it seems to me they're just participating in it.

But I got the impression these kids were going to get drugs no matter what. Watching them, I was relieved when they got welfare, because then they didn't have to turn tricks.

It's better if they're getting welfare than if they're out on the street, but if all that the city is doing is giving out welfare, not helping them in other ways, I don't know how big a help that is. There's something about heroin where you feel that there's a kind of unspoken leniency because heroin addicts are not violent. The police are less concerned with them, so they allow the scene to flourish. But the scene is so bad now. It's a really cruel scene. There are dealers who OD kids and rape them.

Me: The drug culture can look romantic from the outside. Were you taken with the La Bohème camaraderie?

Okazaki: That's an appealing thing for kids, that there's a community that goes with it, a mystique. The ritual is really appealing for kids, preparing your dope, stirring it, the whole process of shooting up. It clearly attracts a different population. They don't remind me of potheads or of people who take other drugs. They had things to say, philosophies. Tracy's boyfriend, Ben, we'd sit and talk about Bukowski while we were changing reels. Even though they're heroin addicts, even though it was miserable to film--you're standing in urine, and you feel kind of helpless--it was always interesting and I liked the kids. There's a kind of symbolism that goes with the drug. It's the end of the road, and that goes with the fatalism that you see in popular culture and in literature. It's the romanticism that goes with suicide, really. It's the same appeal.

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From the April 12, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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