Watching Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s striking documentary Detropia, I was reminded, strangely enough, of Ridley Scott’s decidedly indecisive Alien “prequel” Prometheus. No, seriously. Hear me out. A movie event 30 years in the making that couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone with a vested interest, Scott’s chilly, baroque space oddity shifted from easy and familiar to vexing and suggestive, often within single scenes. Saddled with expectation it couldn’t — or perhaps didn’t want to — meet, the film eschewed clear exposition to explain its visually arresting, but logic-scrambling, narrative moves in favor of an open-ended, “piece it together yourself” framework. Such brazen disregard for the by-the-numbers payoff of a big-budget sci-fi entry exhilarated some, glad to ascribe their own meaning to what they’d just witnessed, and angered those who demanded answers from the all the film’s big conceptual rues simmering in the pot, waiting for some ingredients to thicken.
Detropia, ostensibly a documentary about the staggering decline of what was once America’s fastest growing city through a blend of both bird’s eye and fly-on-the-wall distance and intimacies, functions in a similar way, tossing aside its genre’s structural conventions and goals, presented to us instead as a moving collage of Detroit’s diverse people, places, and things. Absent are straightforward sit-down snippets with a cast of “experts”, cherry-picked factoids serving a slanted thesis. In its place are the tired but insistent living ghosts of Detroit, spirits who either cannot or choose not to leave their crumbling but hallowed ground. The film grants much of its space to these characters who drift in and out of the frame without much context, Ewing and Grady catching them often in the middle of alternately fiery and somber conversations about the surreal, suspended state in which they live, their hopes for its resurrection barely distinguishable from their fears of its extinction.
Ewing and Grady are content to allow quiet, long takes of Detroit’s shattered landscape (and its searching inhabitants) speak for itself; even the obligatory on-screen intertitles are mostly embedded into skylines, aligned with gutted facades, and growing out of empty lots like dandelion weeds. Unlike their focused take on the fuzzy but earnest moral conflicts displayed in their captivating 2006 film Jesus Camp, Ewing and Grady, with risky aplomb, step aside from their subjects just enough to exonerate themselves from committing to judgment or solution. At the same time, though, the filmmakers have chosen subjects with whom they seem deeply familiar, and even if the viewer fails to walk away from the film with a sense of understanding each individual — the young barista/video blogger, the retired school teacher/bar owner, the hopeful opera house director, the performance artist couple who stand on the freeway in gas masks spray-painted gold — the community of voices manifests into a strong, singular hum that contributes to the film’s fluidity.
I’ve never been to Detroit, but it is where two of my closest friends came of age. Unsurprisingly, they were split in their assessment of the film: one applauded its experimental approach and its ability to capture the complicated beauty of Detroit, the way it exudes a kind of grim grace; the other felt Ewing and Grady actively ignore the places where the city objectively thrives, its more modern, functioning facilities that successfully attract suburbanites and keep the troubled economy afloat. But where they are in agreement, however, is in their passion for their hometown, their deep nostalgia for how it has shaped them and their concerns for its prosperity. Clearly, Ewing, born and raised in Detroit, composed this film with that same spirit, at once generous and appropriately defensive. And it is in this vain that Detropia offers up its most compelling, if whispered, argument: that Detroit ultimately will save itself, and in a way will be the site of the rebirth of the American dream.
The film begins and ends with the arts at play: it opens on the Detroit Opera House in performance juxtaposed with its neighboring crumbling edifices, and closes on a young opera singer belting his heart out in an abandoned train station. And mere minutes before, we’re introduced to those aforementioned performance artists who are prominently featured on the film’s promotional materials, gleeful that they were able to purchase a modern loft with sleek, high-end appliances, without having to sacrifice their pursuit of a creative life that in, say, New York City would be utterly impossible without a benefactor or a trust fund. When one of them insists this possibility exists “only in Detroit,” its echoes of “only in America” surely resonate.