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Interview: Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing Talk Detroit And Their Film 'Detropia'

Interviews
by Christopher Bell
September 7, 2012 4:40 PM
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Once a bustling city and your one-stop shop for American automobile manufacturing, Detroit is now a shadow of its former, glorious self. It's broke, the former lucrative auto industry employ very few, and the neighborhoods are generally lined with empty, abandoned houses. Lifelong inhabitants retain hope and fight for the place they call home, but it seems like the area is facing a steady, unyielding decline.

This locale is thrust into the spotlight for "Detropia," a documentary by "Jesus Camp" and "The Boys Of Baraka" filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Keeping light on history lessons and going head first into Detroit's current economic climate, the two chart an assorted handful of stalwart Detroiters as they live and fight for their home sweet home. While there are some minor developments that Ewing & Grady capture (such as a government proposal to move everyone out of their homes in an attempt to use the open land for urban farming) that give the occasional narrative hook, it's by-and-large a portrait of the city, with the filmmakers scouring every inch of the place to have someone (or something, such as the wasteland-esque environments) detail their own personal story. Even so, there's a lot to take from the film even if you're not familiar with Detroit -- indeed, anyone living in certain parts of the country can see their own city fitting the description, and in that sense Detroit more or less is representative of the entire country. We caught the movie at Hot Docs and said it was "a vital and affecting work" -- check out the review here.

We got to speak with the filmmakers about their personal connection to the subject, their influences, the gender issue, and what they think Detroit's steps to recovery should be. Check it out below, and catch "Detropia" opening today in NY (and more to follow -- keep up with it here).

Why Detroit?
Detroit not only serves as a terrificly compelling subject, it's a highly personal topic for Ewing, who grew up outside of the city. "In some ways it was like I was finally experiencing Detroit when we actually moved there and started shooting," she stated, also noting her family's part in the area's heart -- auto manufacturing. "My father and his brother had a functioning manufacturing business that made parts for the auto industry, so I had an interesting front row view of what it was like to survive as a manufacturer in America. I watched as they had to come up with new products that were more difficult to mimic and hard to make, I just watched them innovate their way out of a crisis while their colleagues were going out of business." She's since moved away from Michigan and operates with Grady in New York City, but going back was incredibly heart wrenching. "It was hard to see my grandma's old street. Most of the houses are gone, and I could barely recognize it at all, and I went there every Sunday as a kid. That was something that really hit home." Grady, being the outsider of the duo, didn't need much convincing from Ewing to shoot a film in Detroit, finding plenty of subject matter and ideas to sink her teeth into. "I thought it was a fascinating place. It's very important to American identity, it’s very surprising as to what it looks like and feels like to live there. I definitely thought it was rich material to explore and we could make a good movie there. It was just simple curiosity and I thought the material could deliver."

Microcosm
Saying that "Detropia" isn't largely about Detroit is false, but the directors hope that the movie will resonate for those living in cities with similar situations. "There's so many other cities that are similar. On the festival route, people came up to us and said 'This is not about Detroit, this is about my city.' We of course believe that, but the audience has to believe that, and they are. They're making their own connections. It's a real moment of national introspective right now, which way the country's gonna go, and I think Detroit captures that very well," Ewing stated. "We don’t want to say that the whole country would turn into Detroit, but it could have aspects of it. You look at all the municipalities and states that don’t have any money, and their services are diminishing, the health care for the less affluent is being cut, schools are getting cuts, so the quality of life is impacting communities all over the country. So there are versions of what’s happening in Detroit and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better anytime soon," added Grady. The filmmakers were also worried that audiences would take the film too literally, and even worse, that they would think the helmers were patronizing the city or attacking it. "Detroiters haven't seen it yet, but there's already rumors flying around that we're picking on the city. They're very sensitive. But when they see it, hopefully they realize it's not about them completely," said Ewing. But the two understand why they are so guarded, with Grady explaining, "Detroiters have gone through a lot and they are weary of the kind of press they’ve gotten, and I think they’re a little bit exasperated at the fact that everyone seems to be coming around to the issues that the country has been facing, which they’ve been dealing with for decades. But overall people were fairly open, and we were able to speak to a lot of them."

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