Streetwise (1985): Martin Bell’s Oscar-Nominated Docu about Teenagers in Seattle

The Oscar-nominated “Streetwise” offers a touching portrait of young teen-age vagrants living in Seattle. The film draws on an article by Cheryl McCall and photo essay by Mary Ellen Mark in Life magazine called “Streets of the Lost.”

The film is produced by McCall and directed by Martin Bell, a Brit married to Mark. By not structuring a narrative or commenting on what’s seen, the film bears a photo-essay quality, though it has touches of sensationalism. Made almost in the style of a fiction film, “Streetwise” was criticized by some reviewers for being too polished and handsomely crafted in its goal to reach a wide audience.

The filmmakers have said that they didn’t want to photograph children in a major city like New York or Boston, so they chose Seattle, because all the kids hang out on Pike street, within a 300-yard area. Shot over a 10-week-period, financing was difficult. The first producer, who wanted to have complete control, didn’t want the film to be un-American. Financing did come when McCall was assigned to profile Willie Nelson for Life. During their interviews, the subject of the film came up and Nelson gave them $80,000–no strings attached. McCall and Mark kicked in $23,000 a piece and Bell donated his time and the equipment. When they ran out of funding half way through the film (budgeted at $350,000), McCall sold her Time stock. As that money dwindled, the crew moved faster, working 6 and even 7 days a week, 14 hours a day.

At first, the filmmakers had problems gaining the kids trust. On the first day of shooting, one girl objected, so Bell took the film out of the camera and gave it to her. It changed everything around. Mark assumed the kids wouldn’t let them into their lives, but they did and so did their parents.

Bell and Mark experienced conflicted feelings about the degree of their interference with their subjects’ lives. The film proved a draining emotional experience for them, because as they told Horn, “You are looking at something so horrific and yet what you’re getting as a filmmaker is incredible film.”

The question that always plagues cinema-verite films is how much did the presence of the camera transform the reality of the kids into the fantasy of starring in a movie The “staged” impression created by the film comes from its technical proficiency: The camera is steady and the voices are clear. Somehow people assumed the camera would be wobbly and out of focus if the recorded events were to be true.

Interwoven in the film, which was edited by Nancy Baker (who also worked on Barbara Kopple’s seminal “Harlan County, USA”), were the kids’ first-person voice-over narrations, which were recorded in a Seattle makeshift studio. What would ordinarily appear as interview material is presented in the way that a dramatic character would narrate a story. The intention was to make a film from the kids’ point of view–the voiceover helps the audience get the kids’ perspective. The film examines the subject from an entirely different angle than the article in Life, which views street life from an adult perspective; the film lets the kids speak.

The film’s sound is rather clean and intimate, as a result of using of a shotgun mike and 4 Micron radio microphones planted on the people designated as main characters. This eliminated the need for a boom, and enabled Bell to shoot from up to a block away, and cut down on street noise.

“Streetwise” does not overemphasize the sordidness of street life or the bleak prospects of the kids’ future. The interviews are captured at the height of their energy and bravado. Focusing on the children’s mundane street lives, not much in the film seems forced or false. The documentary format didn’t allow the filmmakers access to the more sordid aspects of street life–the violence, prostitution, drug use–the exploitation of the children seems underdeveloped.


After shooting was over, Bell learned that one of the subjects had hung himself in prison. The crew returned to shoot his funeral, but they were criticized by the kids for not shooting a separate memorial they had held for him a week earlier. The filmmakers distributed the movie themselves: With 60 prints available, it opened in 30 cities.

Bell didn’t expect the film to have much of an impact. He has been working as a still photographer for 20 years, making many social documentaries. He felt it was important to open people’s eyes, make them aware that situations like this exist, but he never believed he could actually effect change. (Horn).

The filmmakers took one of the subjects, Tiny, to the Oscar show. At the ceremony, Tiny was given a card from a producer, who wanted nothing more than to be one of her customers. Upon losing, Tiny stomped her corsage and started to cry. Bell claims that he learned more from the kids than the kids learned from them.

End Note

In 1993, Bell remade Streetwise into a narrative feature, American Heart, starring Jeff Bridges.

This review draws on Filmmaker Magazine’s essay about the making of the documentary.