Brentwood Home Video // 2003 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 1st, 2005
A journey into the world of heroin and the streets of New York City.
Union Square is the most potent anti-drug film one can use to try to prevent someone from shooting dope. This intimate, in-your-face documentary from Stephen Szklarski is a vivid, striking portrait of seven homeless heroin addicts, living in squalor from day to day, slaves to their addiction.
Stephen Szklarski took his camera to Union Square, in New York City, and started to meet people. Union Square is a haven for homeless heroin addicts, so strung-out on dope that they have formed a loose commune with each other. Of the dozens of people Szklarski spoke with, he chose to focus his documentary on seven addicts, all of whom fully opened up about their lives, their addictions, and their hopes. Szklarski follows these people through their daily routine: Stir from sleep in their filthy sleeping bags, panhandle (or worse) for money, buy some bags of heroin, shoot up, and repeat the process over and over.
Wow. This film blew me away. Union Square is documentary filmmaking at its most visceral and in-your-face. It shatters preconceptions and blows wide open a world that is mysterious (and repugnant) to many people. In short, Union Square is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
This film was hypnotic. From the moments the cameras were turned on the seven addicts, I was transfixed. This was a group of people nearly uniformly derided and set aside as almost subhuman: the dregs of society, if you will. But because of the intimate nature of the documentary -- Szklarski holds his cameras right up to the faces of his subjects, giving the audience the opportunity to soak in each detail, every facial piercing, every scar, every rotted tooth -- the film gives these filthy, faceless entities personalities. Whereas you might turn away from them if you were actually to cross their paths, you don't have the option with Union Square. You are forced to look, forced to listen to their stories. And they all have stories of how they ended up homeless and hopelessly mired in addiction.
This is an unadulterated film. Szklarski turns on his cameras, asks questions, and lets the people talk. It is their story, uninterrupted by snappy edits or cutesy production tricks. In fact, aside from a few chapter titles and some minimal, and very effective, background music, Union Square is entirely interview based. There are a few harrowing shots of these guys shooting up, but I can't really comment on those scenes, as I turned away like a little baby. Judge David Johnson hates needles.
If Szklarski has an agenda to promote, I didn't see it. He certainly set out to reveal the humanity of society's lowest rung-dwellers, but beyond that, what you gain from their stories is up to you.
This is what I came away with: Heroin is a seductive, utterly overwhelming drug that takes its addicts prisoner. Recognizing that, there is certainly sympathy to be had for those who have fallen prey to the drug's potent effects. However, as they talked about how they first set on the path to near self-immolation, the addicts reveal they all made a choice at some point, and continue to make choices each day.
Detox and rehab are out there for them, but these are imposing steps, which many of them are unwilling to make. One girl notes she has a daughter that she hasn't seen in years, and prior to moving to Union Square and shooting dope she made the conscious decision to stay with her dope partner instead of her daughter.
In short, these folks are a pathetic lot, deserving of compassion and pity. They dwell on the fringe of society, "making money" (as they refer to it) by begging or stealing or prostituting themselves. What Szklarski was able to tease from them is exhaustive, and exhausting. The level of candor on display in this film is staggering. It is an endurance trial to watch 91 minutes of despair and hopelessness -- but it is not to be missed.
Technically, the disc is mediocre. A shaky full-frame transfer and a subdued Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix are what's available. But I don't mind; this is just people talking into a camera, not laser blasts and exploding helicopters. Szklarski lays down a great commentary track, fleshing out the details of his film and adding more information about the characters. An excellent addition is "Union Square Revisited," which follows up on the addicts. Emotionally, it is bittersweet: Some of them made it out of Hell, others succumbed.
One of the most effective documentaries I have ever seen, Union Square is as raw and real as it gets. I dare you to look away.
Not guilty. Seriously, though, don't frickin' do drugs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Brentwood Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Union Square Revisited