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Sundance 2012 Review - "Detropia" (A Moving, Painterly Mourning Of A Once Economically Vibrant City)

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 22, 2012 12:23 PM
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This haunting piece of documentary cinema tells the story of one city in economic decay; but really, as the real people in the film repeatedly state, this isn't just a Detroit problem; it's an American problem, and other cities within the country will eventually experience a similar fate; that is unless something is done to reverse trends brought about by what we call globalization, as captains of industry make decisions based almost entirely on the need to generate profit.

It's business as usual, and what you'll see and hear in Detropia won't necessarily be anything you haven't already seen and heard before - notably, the results of the exporting of jobs to countries that provide cheaper labor (meaning wage cuts, and layoffs for those already in despair), and how quickly the USA went from being a top manufacturer and exporter of goods in the early half of the 20th century, to primarily exporting services and importing goods manufactured in other countries around the world (China especially) today.

It's a question that Detropia asks; and it doesn't provide all the answers, but I don’t think that's the filmmakers' intent.

Natives of Detroit, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, are more interested in those who remain in that diminishing city - once a vibrant metropolis with almost 2 million inhabitants not-so-long ago, as workers (including many African Americans escaping the Jim Crow south) migrated north in search of jobs within all those then flourishing auto manufacturing plants, leading to a rise in the middle class; but now a city with around 700,000 people, a ghost of its former self, littered with abandoned buildings (skyscrapers and homes), empty lots and streets, that make it look as if a war broke out, or, as one person noted in the film, as if a bomb was dropped in the middle of the city.

But oddly enough it's that desolate, deserted look and feel, and accompanying deflated standard of living that make it alluring to some - artists especially.

The film is a result of 2 years of on the ground work in Detroit by the filmmakers, looking at a city (and really a country; or even world) in crisis.

Detroit’s story is emblematic of America's iconic economic history over the last century. The so-called American dream realized (or at least seemingly within reach for most), but now not even a dream, as the country's economy collapses, and it becomes a shadow of what it once was - or what we once believed it to be, whether myth or reality.

A once majestic city reeling on the edge of dissolution, what the film documents intimately and without direct commentary from the filmmakers (they're completely absent), Detropia could actually be regarded as an apocalyptic story. You can almost hear the helicopters flying above the city calling for the remaining inhabitants to evacuate for their own safety and survival.

But despite the despair on display, the canvass is quite vivid and painterly, creating something oddly beautiful and transfixing of all that desolation. And it's aided by a calmly haunting soundtrack.

Those that still remain (a few of them make up the film's core representatives of that city's heavily African American working class) do so with nerve and defiance, even as city leaders, themselves perplexed and seemingly helpless, provide no real solutions; a motley group of men and women of varying ages, mournful realists and thinkers, who aren't quite yet ready to give up and give in, working towards both making ends meet as well as making sense of their plight in the so-called Motor City, in postindustrial America, facing the prospects of a profoundly transformed future.

The conversations that are happening in the film are the same conversations that are happening daily around the country; it's certainly very topical and well-timed, making it difficult to watch and not become distressed at just how unforgiving our chosen economic system (aka capitalism) has been and can be, especially on those who exist at the bottom of society's hierarchy.

Whether or not Detropia will register and inspire audiences to some kind of purposely and result-oriented action is another story.

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  • Joe Doughrity | January 30, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Thanks for reviewing this. Since Detroit is my hometown I'm looking forward to how they portray the city, it's people and how they are coping with adversity.

  • Another Filmmaker | January 24, 2012 7:43 PMReply

    I saw the film. The review is on point. Beautifully done film, absent the section on the recently transplanted artists- there are far more interesting Artists doing things in Detroit. Also, this film needed nothing else but more, more, more. Like Ken Burns more. What's happening in Detroit really is emblematic of the rest of the country. I would also like to see more about the city's plan to Downsize and social gardening movements. I really liked that they included critiques. How these ideas pan out with the public will ultimately determine the future of a severely broke and rapidly disappearing city.

  • Steven | January 23, 2012 1:04 PMReply

    I can't wait to see this film because I currently live here and I'm from here. I think the local leadership is in a quagmire of a problem they can't handle. But this looks really inspirational and it actually looks like it's going to show people from the city and not the surrounding suburbs. But I hope doesn't just focus on the bad neighborhoods and oh-woe-is-me black folks.

  • Tamara | January 23, 2012 9:14 AMReply

    Beautifully written. Love the title: "Detropia". I would love to see this.

  • Bobbie ciegar | January 22, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    And so it goes....

  • Charmain | February 4, 2012 12:22 AM

    Im also a native..wayne state grad...apart of the kilpatrick generation before it started to all go bad..i left in 2000 moved to Charlotte breaks my heart to see what has happened to my city hometown..ill always rep where im from but id never live there again hope this movie tells what potential such a great city had n doesnt focus on just all the bad....looking forward to viewing this

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