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Review: Detroit's economic devastation chronicled in 'Detropia'

Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady let resolute residents tell the story of a once-great city's decline and struggle for survival.

October 04, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • "Detropia" sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution.
"Detropia" sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering… (Loki Films )

"Detropia" comes at you with the economically ravaged Motor City of Detroit clinging to its perch like a canary in a coal mine, gasping for breath.

The new documentary from acclaimed filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady examines the detritus of a major American city that has been imploding for years. It is a striking and moving study of "what was" versus "what it has become" as the filmmakers try to get at the whys.

That the title suggests something other than utopia is made clear from the first frame. With cinematographers Tony Hardmon, a veteran whose work includes Michael Moore's "Sicko," and Craig Atkinson, who is making his debut, Ewing and Grady lay out "Detropia's" cautionary tale with a lens that makes even devastation a thing of beauty. The images are haunting: a church sanctuary stripped bare except for a baby grand piano that has been flipped on its side and gutted; a playground swing rusting in a sea of waist-high grass; a high-rise, its entire face missing, the rooms exposed like a giant dollhouse, on and on they go.

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One of the directors' great strengths is the point of view they choose for their films. "Jesus Camp," their 2007 Oscar nominee, was told through the eyes of kids hoping to become evangelical preachers. In "Detropia," rather than experts, they focus on the people struggling to stay, those living in the belly of the beast.

A young blogger named Crystal Starr; retired teacher Tommy Stephens, who now owns a blues bar; local United Auto Workers head George McGregor, and others shape "Detropia's" narrative as they walk us through empty streets and deserted buildings. Against all that heartfelt emotion, the filmmakers juxtapose the facts in simply stated sentences superimposed on some of the images: the jobs gone, the factories closed, the population lost, the houses foreclosed. The numbers are sobering.

Even with the government bailout of the U.S. auto industry, which brought some jobs back to the city, Detroit remains a metropolis in crisis, barely avoiding bankruptcy in April by forging a controversial power-sharing agreement with the state.

One of the few bright spots, an influx of young artists, reflects the crisis — Detroit is so cheap, as one performance artist puts it, he can afford to fail.

Though the specifics may be Detroit's, this is a quintessentially American story and that theme echoes through the film. The factory jobs that created and then sustained a middle class for decades, began to disappear — mostly failed businesses or moves overseas for cheap labor — with more than 50,000 factories closed across the U.S. in the last decade. Statistics like those keep surfacing like a bell toll.

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The most compelling voices belong to blogger Starr and to Stephens, whose Raven Lounge is within walking distance of the GM plant. Starr has a real sense of history, someone who clearly loves the city and sees the possibilities in the bones of the past. Sitting in one abandoned apartment house window, the Detroit skyline rising picture-perfect in the distance, she imagines what it would be like to wake up each day to this view.

Stephens has lived much of the history, has seen those better days. He's got a crackling sense of humor and a pragmatism that borders on cynicism. At the local auto show, he presses the Chevy Volt rep on why the price is twice that of the Chinese hybrid also on display. The rep eventually just shrugs, leaving the question, like so many others raised by the film, unanswered.

In a search for solutions, "Detropia" goes inside some of the attempts being made to deal with the decline. A meeting between the city's current mayor, Dave Bing, and a team of urban planners generates the idea of concentrating the population closer to downtown. The vacated land would be turned into urban farms. But there was no monetary incentive, just a plea for people to move. The former Detroit Pistons player is a popular leader, but he looks weary facing angry town hall meetings to explain once again that there is no money. City services are shutting down, schools are closing, houses are being demo'd by the thousands — like lights being turned out one by one, "Detropia" powerfully captures a city fighting not to go dark.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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