|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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