Once a bustling city and your one-stop shop for American automobile manufacturing, Detroit is now a shadow of its former, glorious self. It’s broke, the former lucrative auto industry employ very few, and the neighborhoods are generally lined with empty, abandoned houses. Lifelong inhabitants retain hope and fight for the place they call home, but it seems like the area is facing a steady, unyielding decline.
This locale is thrust into the spotlight for “Detropia,” a documentary by “Jesus Camp” and “The Boys Of Baraka” filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Keeping light on history lessons and going head first into Detroit’s current economic climate, the two chart an assorted handful of stalwart Detroiters as they live and fight for their home sweet home. While there are some minor developments that Ewing & Grady capture (such as a government proposal to move everyone out of their homes in an attempt to use the open land for urban farming) that give the occasional narrative hook, it’s by-and-large a portrait of the city, with the filmmakers scouring every inch of the place to have someone (or something, such as the wasteland-esque environments) detail their own personal story. Even so, there’s a lot to take from the film even if you’re not familiar with Detroit — indeed, anyone living in certain parts of the country can see their own city fitting the description, and in that sense Detroit more or less is representative of the entire country. We caught the movie at Hot Docs and said it was “a vital and affecting work” — check out the review here.
We got to speak with the filmmakers about their personal connection to the subject, their influences, the gender issue, and what they think Detroit’s steps to recovery should be. Check it out below, and catch “Detropia” opening today in NY (and more to follow — keep up with it here).
Detroit not only serves as a terrificly compelling subject, it’s a highly personal topic for Ewing, who grew up outside of the city. “In some ways it was like I was finally experiencing Detroit when we actually moved there and started shooting,” she stated, also noting her family’s part in the area’s heart — auto manufacturing. “My father and his brother had a functioning manufacturing business that made parts for the auto industry, so I had an interesting front row view of what it was like to survive as a manufacturer in America. I watched as they had to come up with new products that were more difficult to mimic and hard to make, I just watched them innovate their way out of a crisis while their colleagues were going out of business.” She’s since moved away from Michigan and operates with Grady in New York City, but going back was incredibly heart wrenching. “It was hard to see my grandma’s old street. Most of the houses are gone, and I could barely recognize it at all, and I went there every Sunday as a kid. That was something that really hit home.” Grady, being the outsider of the duo, didn’t need much convincing from Ewing to shoot a film in Detroit, finding plenty of subject matter and ideas to sink her teeth into. “I thought it was a fascinating place. It’s very important to American identity, it’s very surprising as to what it looks like and feels like to live there. I definitely thought it was rich material to explore and we could make a good movie there. It was just simple curiosity and I thought the material could deliver.”
Saying that “Detropia” isn’t largely about Detroit is false, but the directors hope that the movie will resonate for those living in cities with similar situations. “There’s so many other cities that are similar. On the festival route, people came up to us and said ‘This is not about Detroit, this is about my city.’ We of course believe that, but the audience has to believe that, and they are. They’re making their own connections. It’s a real moment of national introspective right now, which way the country’s gonna go, and I think Detroit captures that very well,” Ewing stated. “We don’t want to say that the whole country would turn into Detroit, but it could have aspects of it. You look at all the municipalities and states that don’t have any money, and their services are diminishing, the health care for the less affluent is being cut, schools are getting cuts, so the quality of life is impacting communities all over the country. So there are versions of what’s happening in Detroit and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better anytime soon,” added Grady. The filmmakers were also worried that audiences would take the film too literally, and even worse, that they would think the helmers were patronizing the city or attacking it. “Detroiters haven’t seen it yet, but there’s already rumors flying around that we’re picking on the city. They’re very sensitive. But when they see it, hopefully they realize it’s not about them completely,” said Ewing. But the two understand why they are so guarded, with Grady explaining, “Detroiters have gone through a lot and they are weary of the kind of press they’ve gotten, and I think they’re a little bit exasperated at the fact that everyone seems to be coming around to the issues that the country has been facing, which they’ve been dealing with for decades. But overall people were fairly open, and we were able to speak to a lot of them.”
The gender topic has been much more prevalent lately, and with both the directors of “Detropia” being female, they have an interesting perspective on sexism in the industry and the differing treatment in the documentary world. “Heidi and I have talked about this a lot and I think there’s a scale of how much sexism happens depending on not only who the women are but what the job is. Unfortunately, I think where the profits are higher there’s more sexism, and where the profits are lower there’s more work and people are more lenient. I think Heidi and I have slightly less issues with it because there’s two of us, and I think somehow people think we’re almost equal to a guy because there’s two of us,” Grady said. We’ll let that last line sink in.
WSDD (What Should Detroit Do)
Saying that the once-prosperous Motor City has seen better days is a huge understatement, and while the local government are trying their damndest to get the place back on its feet, the filmmakers have some of their own ideas. “If I could come up with a solution, honestly, I’d be a genius. I don’t think there’s one thing, but it has to do a number of things… everything possible,” Grady declared. They both agree on the need for some serious entrepreneurialship. “It has to become a place where people start small businesses, and they have to figure out how to lure people that pay taxes. They have no tax base, no money. Give major incentives to start a business and become an entrepreneur, which has to happen all over this country. It can be an amazing example to the rest of this country. Next step, invest in schools so people stay there. First comes jobs, then people, then comes money. With all that, they can create the community they deserve.” Ewing echoed a similar sentiment, saying, “Pretty much 100% of job growth in the country now is through entrepreneurial companies, small companies. You’re seeing a trend that the city is starting, little coffee shops and this and that, but if Michigan could make itself more attractive to businesses and if Detroit would make it a lot less bureaucratic to open up businesses it would help a lot. More radical ideas like tax-free zones for businesses to lure larger companies to set up in Detroit.” As if it didn’t have enough problems, Grady pointed out another hurdle: the place is much, much too large. “I think it physically has to shrink. It wasn’t a sustainable design, it’s enormous. Even with 1.8 million people, it was still too big. But you’re talking about shrinking a huge infrastructure… I don’t know how to do that. I think it’s going to become something else than what it was. But that doesn’t mean it can’t maintain it’s passion and spirit, but we cannot look at the past. America’s world has changed, and there’s no getting around that.” The number of things to do is quite overwhelming, but the native Michiganite notes that it will take more than hopeful wishing to get the place going again. “There’s no one thing, no single silver bullet to get it going again.”
As big time movie buffs, the filmmakers had a number of flicks that unconsciously influenced them, but they looked at two rather different films in particular when the project was gestating. “Initially the films we were referencing changed of course,” Rachel explained, but originally it was ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ and ‘Short Cuts.’ How peoples’ lives interact with each other and they don’t even know it but they’re all part of the fiber, that would be ‘Short Cuts,’ and ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ was that there’s a big problem under your nose and that you interact with every day, and if you follow the chain back, it’s wild.” And while it’s certainly a different kind of movie, there’s a small connection to Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me,” which took a look at Michigan’s problems two decades prior. “That is an excellent film, and ‘Detropia’ is an interesting companion piece to that film twenty or so years later. We don’t make the same kind of films as him, but I’m glad somebody does.” Many of their films have played at Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, and the filmmakers were happy that the loyal, passionate Michiganite was so supportive of their Detroit-centered film.
With years of documentary films under their belt, we were curious if the two watched to branch out a bit into the fiction world, and it appears that both filmmakers are quite taken with something more down the middle. “I love documentaries obviously, for me that’s where it’s at, but every story needs its own kind of treatment,” Ewing explained. “Sometimes we have an idea that would be better for a narrative, not a documentary. so we move on. But I don’t always want to dismiss it right away, and maybe next time think, well, how else can this be told? I am interested in doing something narrative, but maybe like a hybrid first. Something with a fictional element but all true, based on real occurrences with a strong non-fictional element.” Grady pointed to a great doc/narrative mash-up called “Unmade Beds” that particularly struck her, but there aren’t any ideas that fit the hybrid mold just yet. “Right now we’re finishing up a bunch of projects that we’re excited about: one about islamophobia for HBO, a TV show for MTV, and we’re about to do this ESPN thing about Title IX. As far as a feature, we’re still in the incubation stage, ideas floating around. I really want to do something about the 1%, though.” Timely, and an interesting topic to follow something like “Detropia.”