Shadow World

Yogorilla Each episode begins with the same wail — a child’s? a tormented cat’s? — rising then dissolving into the shriek of steel-on-steel. The camera jitters as it rides under the El, all shadows and light.

Then it's showtime: A crack addict fires up an L-shaped tube, proclaiming "L is for losers," and gets deeply lost himself. Nail-tough neighborhood girls brag about roughing up hookers.  "Nice quiet neighborhood," says  a father of ten, "if they stop finding bodies."

Each vignette is short -- between two and three minutes -- composed with a painter's eye, and populated with a carnival of characters who David Kessler somehow gets to tell their stories.

Since January the 32-year-old filmmaker   has been setting up his tripod under the El, and turning out these dark gems, which he posts to his blog, called Shadow World: 

The El  called to Kessler the moment he saw it; he'd been a student at the University of the Arts in the mid-‘90s. He chose it as a location for a feature film then again for his documentary on Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia artist.

Then in January he moved into a $450-a-month studio, utilities included, seven doors down from the tracks, in a grim  apartment building that bears the hand-written sign "Please knock like a human. Don't break the door."

He hated living there, but he knew the location would offer great material — the sharp contrasts, the constant rattle, the beat-up buildings.

He had no idea he'd fall so hard for the people.


The woman wobbles down Front Street in a bright red T-shirt, worn around her midriff, and dungaree Daisy Dukes. She sees Kessler, and waves excitedly, "How are you, honey?"

"Nice to see you again," he calls across the street.

He’s skinny, unshaven and bespectacled, wearing mud-toned slacks and shirt and a small gray fedora. The full hipster.

She launches into her woe of the moment.

"I was trying to get into the bar," she says. "But they wouldn't serve me because I had a bra top on."

Kessler smiles empathetically. She tells him to take care.

"She's a prostitute," he says as we walk. "I interviewed her yesterday. I was walking out here with my camera. She invited me to sit down next to her. She said she's been out here nine years, since her husband was killed. She walks with a limp. She was in a serious car accident. We talked about that. She has a deep scar on her leg."

I ask whether the people he shoots ever see his work, and so far only one has that he knows of -- a man at Bada Bargains whose hobby is collecting buttons. "He loved it."

Kessler says he often edits out things he thinks might get his subjects in trouble, and only features people he feels some connection to. "I think about this a lot," he says. "I don't want to be seen as exploiting these people."

At Front & Emerald  a woman nearly staggers into us, staring someplace far away. Working girls idle on corners. A man hollers at a woman as they push their groceries down the street.

"It's unfortunate," Kessler says, "that I can't capture all of the smells."

He talks how each block is a different world, one Spanish, the next one Vietnamese. When the El passes, the ground shakes.  He says he no longer hears it.

His recorder, a tiny  Sony Handycam, is always at the ready. He's found material at the laundry. Outside the methadone clinic. At the soup kitchen. On his doorstep.

"I want to find more joyous moments," he says, as the El rumbles overhead. "It is getting progressively darker, with the crack and people talking about the bodies being found in the walls. It’s not what I set out to do. But that is hard to ignore."

Posted 08/09/2007 10:41:43 AM

Nice write-up! These short-form documentaries have real potential. I've been enjoying the Shadow World series and experimenting with the form myself--in much cruder fashion of course--over at I hope the Inquirer encourages these kinds of contributions to the local journalism scene.

Poland Spring
Posted 08/09/2007 01:59:39 PM

Great piece on Shadow World; I've been watching these for months and am glad to see Kessler getting noticed.

Posted 08/09/2007 02:58:29 PM

thanks - it's been fun watching the shadow world evolve.

Mark Schoneveld
Posted 08/09/2007 04:12:22 PM

Thanks for writing about 'Shadow World' - I've been watching since the beginning and it's really great to see David get some recognition for his hard work!

Posted 08/09/2007 04:28:39 PM

This series has been so entertaining and revealing. I'm glad to see it getting some recognition.

Posted 08/10/2007 07:04:19 AM

Damn - how did I miss this blog for so long? The world that Kessler is documenting is the world that *I* come from. It's a world that I feel people should know about, that I've struggled with, for so long. I still have trouble dealing, in a mature, balanced way, with where I came from. But I won't forget. Karl

Posted 08/10/2007 12:04:14 PM

One other thing, to Daniel Rubin, I think it's great to see more cross-over from your newspaper columns into the blog. I don't know how/if they compensate you for the blog, but I like they way Saffron often uses her blog to amplify what she's writing in the column. Anyway, keep up the good work with this kind of stuff.

daniel rubin
Posted 08/10/2007 07:48:05 PM

compensate? is that, like, pay?

Posted 08/11/2007 09:39:00 AM

Spoken like a true populist! Could be like pay, or it could be like a plaque on the wall in the newsroom for the bestest blogger in all of Tierneydom. Seriously though, is it a trade secret? Are you all being officially encouraged to blog or is it just assumed to be part of the job these days?

Grandma Ro
Posted 08/11/2007 10:56:33 AM

Thanks, great find!

Grandma Ro
Posted 08/11/2007 10:57:09 AM

Thanks, great find!

daniel rubin
Posted 08/12/2007 08:18:52 AM

i'm blogging because there's stuff I want to say and do that the column doesn't allow. the check must be in the mail.

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