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Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Artists moving into Detroit
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Director Heidi Ewing grew up four miles from Detroit. After each visit home, she would invariably find herself telling friends in New York just how bad things were in the Motor City. Then she and fellow director Rachel Grady made a trailer for a film about the city. "Turned out there were other people also interested in Detroit," Ewing told the Huffington Post. The award-winning directors of Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka quickly received funding from PBS and the Ford Foundation. In October 2009, they started filming the highly acclaimed Detropia, which was presented at the 14th annual Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal.

The demise of Detroit is old news. We've been hearing about it for decades. In fact, a friend familiar with the area recently said that the purpose of building the Renaissance Center (RenCen) was to revitalize the downtown--that was in 1976. Even so, the last decade of globalization and outsourcing has decimated Detroit, and the film makes it abundantly clear that the extent of the devastation has to be seen to be believed. The Motor City reportedly has 100,000 abandoned homes and 25% of its population has left in the past decade. Detropia is intended to be a wake-up call to the world of what can happen to our cities if we continue to make decisions for purely economic reasons.

Ewing and Grady take us to the streets, showing us the city through the eyes of a handful of tough Detroiters who are unwilling to give up on their city. The cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The dilapidated homes, derelict hotels and rundown movie theatres are in stark contrast to the vintage footage of Detroit in its heyday, when it was the world's car capital and home to a burgeoning middle class. A haunting musical score is intercut with scenes from Detroit's Opera, which clings to life from support from the Big Three automakers.

The scenario may sound grim, and it is. Through local UAW President George McGregor, we see the status of what remains of the automotive industry. He chairs a meeting where management "offers" workers a sizeable cut to their hourly wages. There's also retired school teacher Tommy Stephens who runs the only blues bar left in East Detroit. He keeps the money-losing operation open with the hope that the plant up the road will soon be bustling once the electric car is perfected. The two represent the doomed hope of many North Americans--that manufacturing jobs will soon return to this side of the world.

But Detropia also offers hope. The film follows twenty-something Crystal Starr, a video blogger and urban adventurer when she isn't working in a café. Starr films herself breaking into abandoned buildings and houses, and imagines for her viewers what life was like when the city "was bangin." Visiting the ruins of cities like Detroit, known as ruin porn in Tumblr culture, has begun to draw a new kind of tourist to the city, not to mention scores of artists who are attracted to Detroit's low-cost of living and dirt-cheap real estate. I must admit that my initial interest in Detropia stemmed from seeing "the Ruins of Detroit," a brilliant photo essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Ewing and Grady have given us a powerful snapshot of Detroit at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, with all of its crumbling architecture and infrastructure. The film also provides a much needed picture of the human element, the Detroiters who refuse to leave, something that no statistic, headline or "expert" can deliver.

Detropia serves up some great food for thought about globalization, our shrinking middle class, and ultimately, the future of our cities.

This review has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

Detropia is showing at Cinéma du Parc from November 24 to November 29.

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The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang

The Fruit Hunters
Directed by Yung Chang

Noris Ledesma, Member of the Rare Fruit Council Int'l
A gray November day calls for an adventure! So why not follow passionate fruit hunters Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell on their quest to find a “wani” mango in Bali and rescue a rare durian from the evil clutches of encroaching industrialists in the jungles of Borneo. Their noble mission—to obtain plant grafts to preserve the species for cultivation on the other side of the world. Yet, the dynamic duo’s obsession with rare fruit is by no means unique, as moviegoers discovered at the world première of The Fruit Hunters presented at the 14th annual Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal. Among the ranks of fruit fanatics, the film features a driven fruit scientist who works tirelessly to create a banana resistant to a deadly fungus threatening the world’s crop, a fruit detective who studies paintings from the renaissance era to rediscover forgotten fruit and a well-known actor and fruit activist who spearheads a campaign to start a community orchard on coveted property in the Hollywood Hills.

Indigenous Guide in Borneo
Based on Adam Gollner’s best-selling book, The Fruit Hunters is a visually stunning, fast-paced Indiana Jones-style documentary that takes us back in history and around the globe, investigating our love affair with fruit. Although actor Bill Pullman adds some celebrity fire power to the film, there is no question that the star of the show is none other than the fruit itself, in all its myriad forms. From the very first scene, the object of  affection is cast in a sensual and delectable light with a series of close-ups, enhancing the colour, texture and fullness of its star performers. A good thing the première was followed by a fruit-tasting event! And what better way to further enhance the natural beauty of fruit than by quickly switching to images of our mass-produced supermarket variety—the plain jane and insipid-tasting cousin of the real thing.

The Fruit Hunters takes a step away from the documentary in its strictest sense, using humourous re-enactments, highly detailed miniatures and a sprightly musical score. But these aspects add to the film’s playfulness and will remind many viewers of childhoods when both fruit and dreams of adventure were welcome distractions.

The film incorporates plenty of high stakes and irresistible hooks to keep the adventure rolling. Yet, it leaves viewers hanging as to the fate of Pullman’s Hollywood Orchard and whether or not Ledesma and Campbell’s white mango grafts bore fruit. Something tells me there might be a sequel, and I’ll be the first in line.

The Fruit Hunters will be opening on November 23, 2012 in Montreal and Toronto and on
November 30, 2012 in Vancouver.

Cross-posted at Rover Arts.

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