‘Detropia’ Ponders the Fate of Motor City

“When you’re in a Slump,

you’re not in for much fun.

Un-slumping yourself

is not easily done.

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.”

It’s uncanny how the above excerpt from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! describes the thesis of Detropia, a new documentary out on DVD this month from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who collaborated on the 2006 doc, Jesus Camp).

Detropia looks at Detroit in 2010, following the major fallout of the financial crisis of the late noughts and the decades-long decline of the auto industry. Through a series of interviews of Detroiters — including United Auto Workers chapter president George McGregor, video blogger Crystal Starr, and most prominently, club owner Tommy Stephens — Ewing and Grady paint a picture of a city in seemingly irreversible decline.

There is no voiceover, but intertitles provide information — often statistics about Detroit and its population — to help propel the narrative. The statistics are grim; for example, the 2010 census found Detroit’s population to be 713,000, the lowest for the city in 100 years. Symptomatically, more than 100,000 lots stand empty along Detroit’s streets, the vacated homes having been razed.

Ewing and Grady present a cinema vérité-style essay film that incorporates elements of observational and interactive documentary. Many times, Ewing and Grady stand off, camera rolling, simply capturing a moment or a mood. Much of the film features interviewees addressing the filmmakers, but the interviewer’s questions are never heard, lending intimacy to the interviews by making it seem as if the subjects are speaking directly to the audience.

This approach — following a handful of people who act as case studies to bring us further into the topic at hand — is similar to Jeffrey Blitz’s excellent lottery-winner documentary from 2011, Lucky, in its minimalism and and its fly-on-the-wall camera work. Certainly comparisons to the work of Ken Burns could be made, particularly with the interviews, but Burns’s works are voiced over and include performative elements; Ewing and Grady guide Detropia with a lighter touch.

What’s most striking about Detropia is a subtle undercurrent of civic pride among the subjects of the film. Against all odds, the Detroiters captured by Ewing and Grady seem galvanized by their fidelity to the Motor City. In one poignant clip, video blogger Crystal Starr gazes from a former kitchen window on an upper floor of an abandoned tower block and muses aloud what it must have been like to eat breakfast each day in that spot while looking out on the Detroit skyline in the distance, feeling “ready to take on the world.”

Whereas many subjects, like Starr, overtly express their undying love for Detroit, others tacitly articulate their allegiance by wearing a Detroit Tigers cap or shirt — a recurring visual detail that Ewing and Grady are careful to capture in a way that subtly builds to leitmotif.

If there’s a problem with Detropia, it’s that it over-defines the problem without shedding much light on possible solutions. There’s an interesting thread suggesting the arts provide hope — Detroit Opera’s Daniel Dichiera even declares, “The arts can revitalize a city,” and he’s got the résumé to back that up — but the efforts of artists and arts organizations as portrayed in Detropia seem to suggest Canute standing against the tide.

That’s where the DVD’s extras show their strength. With 19 deleted scenes, the extras have a run time as long as the run time of the final cut of Detropia. These clips raise innumerable possibilities about the choices the filmmakers could have made.

By and large, the extras on the disc provide a more hopeful outlook at the future of Detroit than what is depicted in the feature-length version of Detropia. To mention just a few, the deleted scenes include: a former autoworker turned real-estate agent who is buying and rehabilitating abandoned properties, all with an optimistic eye to a turnaround; a meeting of concerned neighbors who are worried about gun violence in their area; a man in a boat who gazes at the Detroit skyline and literally sings its praises, later professing his fidelity to Detroit and his desire to always live there; and a conversation between two men, one a freelance barber and the other an employment seeker, talking about how to succeed at job interviews.

But if a documentary is meant to engage its audience, Detropia does that. Perhaps the “happier” clips — for want of a better term — contained in the deleted scenes might not have engaged people enough. Detropia in its theatrical release stirs emotions that could more likely lead to actions. That may in fact be what Ewing and Grady want; they tip their hand in a dedication in the end credits, but they drop a more artistic hint earlier on.

There’s a scene in Detropia where scrap-metallers are crudely pulling apart the remnants of a disused commercial building. As the ripping and pounding sounds continue, the directors cut to a killdeer standing amidst the rubble, dispassionately watching the salvage unfold. The bright, lively little bird stands in stark contrast to the wasteland that surrounds it.

The moment becomes a metaphor for Detropia itself: The film is about hope for rebirth. And given the people Ewing and Grady introduce us to, we can’t help hoping for that to happen, too.

RATING 6 / 10