Detropia is a 2012 documentary from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Detropia is quite an interesting take on what all is happening in Detroit. For those unaware, Detroit has had a massive exodus in the last few decades, falling from roughly 1.7 million people in the 70s to just 700,000 today. Large portions of Detroit are abandoned or reclaimed, with some neighborhoods only consisting of a handful of houses. What was once the fastest growing city has ground to a halt, mostly due to downfall of the American auto manufacturing industry and Detroit’s heavy reliance on it.
The film focuses mostly around two people: one of the presidents of the local UAW chapter and a nightclub owner. A young woman who is a barista and two artists that moved to Detroit also make appearances, along with one of the performers of the Detroit Opera. We see their responses to the Detroit mayor’s plan to consolidate some of the population in order to open up the land for other uses (such as urban farming), but it’s mostly just vignettes on how much they care for their city and how what’s happening in Detroit is likely to happen elsewhere in the states.
This latter point is the film’s main thrust. The decline in American manufacturing (and other similarly skilled jobs) is eroding the middle class, which is a fundamental aspect of American society, as well as the key economic engine driving overall American success. In Detroit, there isn’t much of a middle class. When people start making enough money, they move out. There aren’t middle class wages to be earned in Detroit, or if there are they don’t compensate for the other downsides to living in the city. But where I think this documentary falls flat is that I didn’t feel there was much of a point. Sure, the individuals in the film make the point about how the world is becoming ever more competitive and America doesn’t hold the position it once did, but the film fails to take the next step and provide some sort of solution. Not that it would be easy, or even possible without making the movie significantly longer, but it does leave a sense of unfulfillment after watching.
In that sense, where it doesn’t provide a solution, Detropia is a documentary in the definition of the sense. It documents what’s going on, and allows real people to create the narrative. This isn’t the first time Ewing or Grady have done this style of film before; they got popular after making Jesus Camp, another documentary about fundamentalist Christian youth camps. The visual tone of the film is fantastic, and especially moving if you’ve never been to Detroit before. One of the particular choices I liked about the film was the inclusion of the scenes from the Detroit Opera House. Opera isn’t something normally associated with Detroit, and yet it provides a vibrancy to the city’s residents and a fantastic contrast to the desolate scenes in the rest of the movie.
It was also interesting noting some of the parallels between Detroit and Ogden. Granted, Detroit faces much greater challenges than our fair city, but Ogden is in the midst of figuring out what to do with large abandoned buildings and open lots in the downtown area just like Detroit is. Ogden has done a decent job of redeveloping downtown, especially in regards to the Junction and what’s happening in the blocks north of the LDS Temple, but it’s still patchwork. We promote and help fund a brand new office building for the IRS, when we have an empty twelve story building just two blocks away.
Either way, Detropia provides a more serious compliment to Ai Weiwei’s documentary and is a fascinating look. You can read more about the film over on its website. Detropia is currently playing at Art House Cinema 502 through December 6th, so be sure to check their website for showtimes.