Detropia (Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady): Much has been written and said about the long, slow decline of Detroit and Detropia, from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, weighs in with its perspective on this sad story. Shot over a two year period, Ewing brings a personal connection to the material as a native of the city and unsurprisingly, the documentary is a rather depressing viewing experience. The filmmakers present scenes of urban decay with loosely connected observations from residents bloodied but unbowed by the city’s deterioration, accompanied by an evocative and understated soundtrack, and some astonishing facts and figures. Once America’s fastest-growing metropolis, the Motor City’s population has dwindled from 1.8 million in the 50s to only 700,000 today, with an unemployment rate that’s officially listed at just under 30% (although it’s estimated to actually be closer to 50% by the mayor himself). The average price of a home in Detroit is just $7,100, down from $73,000 three years ago, and the number of abandoned homes and commercial buildings is in the high tens of thousands.
The most interesting character in the film is Tommy Stephens, a retired teacher and the owner of a struggling blues club. Stephens provides easygoing comic relief and a wise, pragmatic outlook on his city’s dire state. One scene featuring him wandering the floor of the North American International Auto Show effectively illustrates the shift in economic and industrial power from America to Asia, as Stephens amusingly marvels at how China can produce a hybrid car that has all the features of the newly unveiled Chevy Volt, yet costs significantly less. Scenes covering town hall meetings convey the anger of the weary residents, as they question the near-broke city’s drastic cuts to essential services like public transportation. George McGregor, a United Auto Workers chapter head, brings an insider’s viewpoint on the fragile state of his once-mighty industry. Other characters introduced and revisited throughout the film are a young blogger who writes about the city’s plight, young artists drawn to Detroit by its cheap cost of living, tourists gawking at the woeful condition of the city, and unemployed men who scavenge metal from abandoned buildings to make ends meet. Another storyline involves members and patrons of the Michigan Opera Theatre meeting at the Detroit Opera House to discuss the uncertain future of their organization. It’s an inspired choice by the filmmakers to try and show the contrast between affluent citizens concerned about the future of the high art they entertain themselves with alongside people struggling to provide the basics of daily living. The storyline fails to have its intended impact, however, and eats up far too much screen time with interminably long scenes featuring one of the theatre’s productions.
Considering how much I enjoyed Ewing and Grady’s last couple of feature-length docs, Jesus Camp and 12th & Delaware, as well as my fascination with Detroit’s story, I had very high expectations for Detropia. Instead, it turned out be the biggest disappointment of the nine films I watched at Hot Docs, failing to deliver as hard-hitting a portrait as I’d have hoped. The individual characters we meet produced spotty results in terms of engaging my interest level and the directors’ visual depictions of Detroit’s urban blight, while plentiful, neglected to draw me in and stir my feelings of empathy as much as a subject like this should. Detropia falls short of the quality I’ve found reporting on the subject from recent stories on 60 Minutes, long-form pieces in publications like Rolling Stone, and Julien Temple’s stylish Requiem for Detroit, a 2010 BBC documentary.
Detropia is scheduled to be broadcast later this year on PBS and receives a limited American theatrical release in September.