Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have proven themselves masters of the vérité approach with the first-rate documentaries “Jesus Camp” and “12th and Delaware.” In both cases, they managed to engage hot-button issues in a miraculously even-handed fashion, pitting radical-conservative attitudes (about religion and abortion, respectively) against liberal opposition without alienating either side. Their latest topical effort, “DETROPIA,” lacks the same clearly defined battle lines that make their earlier films so galvanizing, but nevertheless delivers a snapshot of Detroit’s dire financial straits and struggling middle class.
The bulk of the movie is a collage of Detroit residents complaining about the city’s downward economic spiral. As the auto industry flails, countless organizations dependent on their support fight to stay alive. Union workers bemoan cutbacks and proclaim they have nothing to lose. A local blogger waxes nostalgic about the city’s faded dreams of building a 21st-century metropolis. The whole experience is one long rant, shot in radiant colors.
From the mournful opener until the closing montage, “DETROPIA” successfully generates a distinct sense of place. Ewing and Grady seem to cover every inch of the city, from the cavernous opera house to drab office interiors and graffiti-covered alleyways. They focus less on a specific group of characters than on a combination of angry voices whose rants slowly blend together. The filmmakers eschew argumentation for consolidation, resulting in a near-experimental work with a few forays into basic reportage.
“DETROPIA” stabilizes its narrative with a fair share of empirical observations. For instance, the revelation that the Detroit Opera House relies on the three big automakers for 70% of its funding pairs with the use of its performances as part of the film’s score. The music itself is a record of the city’s dying state.
The most talkative subject, United Auto Workers Union chapter president George McGregor, extols the virtues of the middle class and predicts its downfall not only in Detroit but around the country. His monologues elaborate on the problem that “DETROPIA” ostensibly faces down, but one vocal critic can’t sustain the vast issue at hand: The lack of growth in lower-class areas is gradually tearing the city apart.
Polemics aside, the movie embraces an urban beauty that sustains it through a somewhat aimless trajectory. Minutes go by before anyone says a word; instead, “DETROPIA” launches into a sprawling portrait of Detroit in light and dark, setting the stage for an elaborate tragedy that it confronts in every subsequent moment.
With its provocative tone, the documentary turns its subject into a grim foreign object. Detroit becomes symbolic of American deterioration at large and its advocacy stems from the shock of watching the American dream unravel in the face of ignorance. One telling scene finds a couple of Swiss tourists telling a barista that they admire the town’s decay. “That’s sort of insulting,” comes the reply, with a concessionary tone. That kind of resignation holds back “DETROPIA” from rising above the morbidity of its situation. A final title card announces that Detroit is on the brink of bankruptcy; offering no immediate solution, Ewing and Grady soak in the destruction.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The doc’s topical slant means it should play well at various festivals and community-based screenings, but is less likely to receive much of a theatrical release; instead, it’s readymade for a home on television, possibly with HBO or PBS.