Life is short, Eternity isn’t.” The phrase, writ large on an Evangelical Christian billboard above Detroit’s skyline, is meant to proselytize to the unconverted. But it is undoubtedly singled out by director Florent Tillon in his documentary Detroit Wild City as a pithy commentary on the surrounding landscape.
It may sound simple, but it’s true: Whether motivated out of curiosity, concern or kinship (real or felt) we create and consume documentaries about different places to see how other people get on with their lives. As always, the nonfiction selection at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival (April 21–May 5) provides plenty of places to visit and lives to watch, but the most compelling of these zero in on locations deemed, justifiably or not, uninhabitable and/or forgotten in which people have nonetheless carried on. Whether set in Detroit, or Willets Point, Queens, or Chile’s Atacama Desert, each of these films attempts to show, with varying degrees of sympathy and engagement, life being lived against the perpetual threat of erasure.
Once a bustling acropolis filled with monuments to post-war American prosperity and industry, the Detroit of Detroit Wild City is now a silent necropolis: its grand railway terminal and blocks-long automobile factories are momento mori to economic boom times, and its empty downtown skyscrapers, shuttered schools and blighted neighborhoods are the gravestones of those who long ago abandoned them.
At least that’s the implicit narrative that has emerged over the past few years, which has seen an unprecedented amount of interest in Detroit among young (often European) photographers who have descended on the city to document its remains, much in the same way that men of the 18th century would visit the ruins of Rome and Greece while on the Grand Tour. In addition to Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre’s website and traveling exhibit “The Ruins of Detroit,” which has received the most attention, there has been Andrew Moore’s photo essay “Detroit Disassembled,” James Griffioen’s photo series of a school’s demolished interior, and Julien Temple’s 2010 TV documentary Requiem for Detroit.
These representations haven’t gone unchallenged, with Detroit residents and expats claiming such “ruin-porn” smacks of sensationalism and lacks a proper contextual framework. Detroit-based photographers Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis launched the website “Can’t Forget the Motor City,” which focuses on scenes of residential life, with the abandoned buildings squarely in the background. Critic and former Michigan resident Andrew Sargus Klein speaks for many, perhaps, when he writes in his critique of Marchand and Meffre’s photos, “What I begrudge is the feeling that it’s now too easy, that urban downfall elicits such spectacular photographs.”