When she died just over a year ago in Manhattan, revered photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her husband Martin Bell were at work on a long-in-the-making follow-up to one of their most enduring collaborations: Streetwise, an Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary about homeless Seattle teens that grew out of work Mark did for LIFE magazine. The result, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, focuses on one of that film’s main characters, whose arresting portrait may be Mark’s most famous picture. Having checked in with Blackwell more than once, the filmmakers find few surprises and many reasons for despair; though the nonfiction marketplace is far more crowded now than it was in the early ‘80s, the new film holds interest both for the filmmakers’ admirers and as a 7Up-like longitudinal study of a multigenerational parenting tragedy.
Blackwell, the child of an impoverished, alcoholic mother, was turning tricks near Seattle’s Pike Place Market by the age of 13. Sporting a punky mullet and carefree attitude (Bell offers plenty of stills and movie clips from the time), she was a spirited enough character onscreen that concerned viewers might have convinced themselves she would emerge from this pack of street kids and find a decent life for herself.
A depressing look at the damage done by neglectful parenting.
Well, at least she survived the AIDS epidemic. Today, Blackwell is morbidly obese, addicted to methadone and the mother of 10 children — many of whom have their own problems with drugs and the law. She’s 44 years old, and the long-term man in her life — a seemingly upstanding father named Will — may be about ready to give up on her, if not on the kids in her brood who belong to him.
We watch as Mark, on an iPad, shows Blackwell footage shot in the ‘80s and in 2004 — the latter of which, showing Will’s arrival in her life, might have been cause for optimism at the time. At the doc’s outset, as voiceover from Blackwell’s kids accompanies images of daily life, some viewers will feel they’re looking at a survivor’s story; in fact, festival materials describe Blackwell’s path as one toward stability.
But that’s a generous reading that, to its credit, the film never pushes on us. Though sympathetic to a woman they have known for over 30 years, Mark and Bell make no positive or negative judgments about her life. For most viewers, this will be a depressing case study of a cycle of bad-idea reproduction in which Blackwell has not just repeated but multiplied her mother’s mistakes. With offspring ranging from grade-school-age to young adulthood, Blackwell has raised some kids on her own and left others to foster parents; their outcomes are varied, with the youngest seeming to be the most well-adjusted. But consider the oldest, Daylon, who now cares for his own infant while smoking heroin on a daily basis; or Rayshon, who exasperates Erin enough that she calls the police to do her parenting for her; or Ranaja, the daughter who seems to be well-behaved until we see her, post-overdose, in a hospital bed.
If this is a survivor’s story, it’s of those who’ve survived to this point in a disaster that is still in progress. A common ingredient in this film and Streetwise is the inclusion of voiceover in which teenage subjects talk of ambitious hopes for the future. Heaven help Erin Blackwell’s kids to come closer to their dreams — or to any healthy adulthood — than she did.
Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
Production company: Falkland Road
Director-director of photography-editor: Martin Bell
Producers: Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark
Composer: Glenn H. Patscha
Sales: The Film Sales Company
Not rated, 88 minutes