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Detropia: Magnificent American Ruins, Struggling to Survive

From the Academy Award-nominated directors of Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, Detropia premiered September 7 and is showcased in select theaters across the country.

Detroit’s story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century— the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now . . . the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos. With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, DETROPIA sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. These soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.

The New Yorker’s David Denby says, “Detropia, a lyrical film about the destruction of a great American city, is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years.”

It has its share of forlorn images the office buildings with empty eye sockets for windows; the idle, rotting factories with their fantastic networking of chutes, pipes, and stacks. Yet the filmmakers, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (who comes from Detroit), are so attuned to color and shape that they have made a beautiful film. We’re looking at new ruins, American ruins the remains of industrial ambition, a kind of impromptu graveyard of capitalism and the survivors, hanging on, exhibit a mix of awed mournfulness and good cheer. The city’s history is evoked by such chroniclers and guides as George McGregor, a warmly sympathetic union veteran; Crystal Starr, a young video blogger, who breaks into abandoned buildings and installs herself in offices now trashed and empty, as if she had worked there years ago; and Tommy Stephens, a former teacher, who warns of revolution if the middle class continues to be eviscerated. At the end, as young people move in to claim the cheap real estate, the movie hints at a fresh surge of capitalist ebullience and a possible revival.

The Village Voice,Karina Longworth

In Detroit’s glorious past, as seen through archival footage and testified to by the film’s subjects—who tell their own stories through loose, stream-of-consciousness narration and conversation—the Motor City was a Midwestern mecca of both national industry and uniquely American pop culture, both car-centric phenomena. The outsourcing of manufacturing that has drained Detroit of promise and opportunity is a process that long predates the national financial crisis—but the overall shittiness of the American plight hasn’t helped. That the auto bailout has had little impact on Detroit’s ability to stave off attrition is evident primarily in Ewing and Grady’s ample footage (beautifully composed and purposefully edited to a haunting electronic score) of burned-out and abandoned buildings, and secondarily in the story thread concerning the endangered Detroit Opera House. The tony, old-school cultural landmark, which relies on significant corporate sponsorship from the auto companies, is in dire financial straits, and if it closes, it’ll have a domino effect on local businesses that depend on theater traffic.

…Is this the “new normal” we’ve been hearing so much about? Considering how relatively small a chunk of history it took up, why did anyone think the middle-class consumerism that marked the middle of the last century was “normal” to begin with? Maybe it was merely too good to pass up. As one Detroiter puts it, the city had promised them a life right out of Leave it to Beaver. We’d seen it on TV, then we saw it come into our lives.” Haunted by these hazy memories of past freedom from want, Detroit’s story is a microcosm of America’s—just, for now, slightly more desperate.

Time Out NY, Keith Ulich

Imagine if Frederick Wiseman and David Lynch had a bastard child, and you’ll get a sense of the movie’s off-kilter aesthetic, a potent and pointed mix of firsthand observation and surreal flights of fancy. Detropia moves with dreamlike fluidity between union halls and nightclubs, from abandoned factories to the Detroit opera house—where we’re treated to a hilarious performance of “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado, its lyrics altered to implicate the Big Three auto makers in the current downturn. Ewing and Grady find vibrant signs of life everywhere they look (Raven Lounge owner Tommy Stevens, always ready with a candid opinion, is the doc’s impassioned heart and soul), which doesn’t alter the sense that we’re watching a requiem. Though people somehow persist, the film seems to say that America is well past halftime.

Detropia expands to more screens Oct. 5th. By then I’ll have seen it myself. From all indications, this is one to keep an eye on.