MAN, WHAT A beautiful film. In Detropia, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (the team behind the 2006 scare-you-to-the-bone documentary Jesus Camp) have made an artsy documentary about the once-great city of Detroit and the decline of American manufacturing.
Loosely following the day-to-day lives of a videoblogger, a bar owner, and an autoworker union president, Detropia doesn't stick to a straight winners-and-losers narrative, instead wandering thoughtfully through the high-stakes challenges facing the diverse city. The camera lingers on dreamy shots of Detroit's skyline from the upper stories of a crumbling apartment complex—then jumps into the middle of a chaotic town hall, frenzied with reaction to Mayor Dave Bing's desperate plan to relocate thousands of citizens to save the city some cash.
From that wandering, a sad, powerful story emerges: What's happening in Detroit could be the future of many American cities, as we continue to outsource manufacturing jobs and slash public budgets.
Plenty of lenses have documented Detroit's dissolution in a greedy, pornographic way, but Ewing and Grady use their position behind the camera to elevate the voices of Detroit's residents. And what they have to say is that they still love their city. Sure, it was nicer and easier to live there when times were flush and the streets were hopping, but the place is far from dead.
It would've been easy for the directors to collect the images of Detropia—the defaced apartments, the metal scrappers, the neighborhoods without streetlights, the abandoned homes that can't be bulldozed fast enough—and paint an incendiary, Michael Moore-style portrait of a depressed place betrayed by capitalist politics. Instead, they focus on how Detroit's artists, business owners, and workers still find a lot to inspire them—and the rest of the country—in the midst of a rusting city.