Reviewed in this essay: Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Running Time: 94 minutes. Screened at Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival. Toronto general release in September. 91 minutes.
All non-fiction seeks to use a close engagement with a specific subject as a lens to tell a story about larger, abstract issues. Filmmakers have no choice: the abstract must be made concrete and knowable for it to be effective. Rarely is this done as adeptly as it is in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new documentary Detropia. The directors spent two years in the titular city with cameras in tow, and they present Detroit to us in unhurried, measured fashion. We spend time with a trade union official fighting against GM to keep one of the city’s few remaining plants open; the owner of a famous jazz bar who sees his business as a key node of community for local residents; white hipster-artists who love Detroit for its rock bottom real estate; and the city’s mayor, David Bing, as he struggles to convince residents that his plan for neighborhood contraction is in their best interests.
Ewing and Grady’s mosaic-like approach is effective, providing us with a vital cross-section of social actors who are all, in their own ways, coming to terms with the socioeconomic loss that has defined the city’s recent history. Yet the film is far from a talking heads account of what went wrong. Rather, it seeks to capture the textures of the city itself, and it is here that the film is at its most impressive. Ewing and Grady allow their sharply tuned digital cameras to linger on the physical density of the urban monolith. Peeling posters flapping in the wind for no one to read, swaying concrete beams against moonlight, snowflakes swirling amidst burned out heaps of copper: the shots accumulate with tremendous force into a lyrical denunciation of the neoliberal capitalism that has defined post-Reagan America.
Some may complain that Ewing and Grady’s fascination with physical decay only reinforces the sense of hopelessness that Detroit’s residents are trying to overcome. Yet I, for one, found their meticulous physical observation courageous. For they refuse to let us look away from the social world that neoliberalism has produced, even if its physical vestiges are unpleasant to behold. This is a welcome respite from the ideological fantasies we are forced to endure regularly from both Hollywood and Washington. Their camera thus captures a postindustrial reality in which all forms of public, communal protection have been stripped away. The scene of a working mother pleading with the mayor not to turn off her bus service- for it is a social service that enables her, every morning, to better herself by going to work– is as forceful a critique of neoliberal policy as we’ll find on screen today.
We can only hope that the documentary’s unrelenting vision forces its viewers into the urgent, albeit arduous, task of acting collectively to overturn the austerity of our contemporary moment. As the wizened jazz bar owner warns near the end of the film: if you take away the middle class, all that is left is pure antagonism between polarized social forces. And that is the definitive recipe for no mere sputtered unrest- but rather trenchant and unforgiving revolution.