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From Sundance to Eastwood, Detroit as Emblem of America's Collapse (and Recovery?)

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik February 6, 2012 at 7:54PM

Once you start looking, it's amazing how much media you can find being made these days about America's most beleagured city: Detroit. As a microcosm for the country's economic depression and collapsed manufacturing sector, it seems there's no better example than the Motor City. At Sundance, there were two films: "Detropia," Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's impressionist look at the state as some kind of near-extinct relic of bygone prosperity, and "Searching for Sugar Man," a portrait of a forgotten musician, which includes glimpses of the city's industrial vistas and poverty-stricken areas. Together with Clint Eastwood's much ballyhooed Chrysler Superbowl ad (“They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again"), Detroit is back on the media's map.
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Once you start looking, it's amazing how much media you can find being made these days about America's most beleagured city: Detroit. As a microcosm for the country's economic depression and collapsed manufacturing sector, it seems there's no better example than the Motor City. At Sundance, there were two films: "Detropia," Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's impressionist look at the state as some kind of near-extinct relic of bygone prosperity, and "Searching for Sugar Man," a portrait of a forgotten musician, which includes glimpses of the city's industrial vistas and poverty-stricken areas. Together with Clint Eastwood's much ballyhooed Chrysler Superbowl ad (“They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again"), Detroit is back on the media's map.

"Detropia"
"Detropia"

My initial response to "Detropia" was a little cool, but I may be coming around to it. While I enjoyed the cinematography and post-apocalyptic lyricism, I felt wanting of new information. Economic collapse is nothing new, of course, and I felt the filmmakers focused on mood at the expense of journalistic inquiry.

But now that I reflect on it more and see the shiny optimism being championed by the likes of Eastwood, I wonder if that more bleak canary-in-a-coalmine portrait of the city is more appropos. And as an alternative to the growing number of nonfiction projects out there offering harder facts and more rosey reports of efforts on the ground to rebuild the city's morale, I'm starting to welcome "Detropia's" artful and ambiguous vision more everyday.

Even before Sundance, I remember a sequence from "Urbanized," Gary Hustwit's survey of urban survival, which deals with Detriot's local gardening efforts.

And coming to Brooklyn's BAM Cinematek later this month, there's "DEFORCE," which looks at the modern political history of Detroit, which has received accolades from Ken Burns. 

In the works, there's Boston documentary filmmaker Erik Proulx's “Lemonade: Detroit,” about people who are finding opportunity in the economic downturn. “Detroit is one of the most inspiring places on the planet,” the filmmaker has said.

Similarly, Palladium Boots commissioned "Detriot Lives" with Johnny Knoxville, to convey the "DIY paradise where rules are second to passion and creativity" and people "are creating the new Detroit on their own terms, against real adversity."

Recently published on Vimeo, I also stumbled upon a locally made doc called "Redefining Dreamland."

So which is it: A force of hope or a harbinger of economic catastrophe? I guess it depends on which filmmaker you ask.