'Detropia,' debuts at Sundance Film Festival, shows a different view of Detroit

Posted on January 20, 2012

The Sundance Film Festival is often a platform for movies that make the world wake up and watch.

This year, Detroit will be in the spotlight at the prestigious event in Park City, Utah. “Detropia,” which has its world premiere Saturday, portrays the Motor City as a canary in the coal mine of America’s economic future.

The feature-length documentary is one of many films playing at Sundance that reflect what’s playing out across the country, in terms of the growing focus on corporate greed, poverty and income disparity.

“Detropia” could be among the standouts of the 2012 festival.

“It was a slam dunk for me the second I saw it,” said David Courier, senior programmer for the festival. “It is definitely about Detroit, of course, but it is also using Detroit as a microcosm of America today. If there’s one trend that we saw in films across the board, it’s a reexamination and reinvention of the American dream in the wake of the economic collapse.”

The city’s struggles have had no lack of attention recently. There have been other documentaries, as well as national TV reports, photo books, art exhibits and references in pop songs.

But “Detropia” seems different, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s made by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing, who grew up in Farmington Hills, and Rachel Grady. They are best known for the controversial 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” which focused on an evangelical Christian summer camp. Two, it frames the story from the perspective of the decline and collapse of America’s manufacturing base, with Detroit being at the epicenter.

“Our intention is not that somebody point the finger and say, ‘Man, Detroit’s really got problems.’ If that’s what happens, then we’ve failed at our job,” Ewing said this week. “We want people to say, ‘Man, that’s happening in my city, too. How did we let it go this far? What is our American identity when we’ve allowed a city to come to this point? And what are our priorities?’

“Really, we want the story of Detroit to boomerang back to the viewer and reflect upon what’s going on around them and their part of the country.”

With evocative music and hauntingly lovely cinematography, “Detropia” conveys some of the emptiness and beauty of the city while delving deeply into the economic battering it has taken.

The villain of the piece could be the shift of manufacturing power from the U.S., where making things fueled the rise of the middle class, to countries such as Mexico and China, where the costs of producing goods can be much cheaper.

The movie, which took two years to plan and complete, doesn’t shrink from harsh realities. There are familiar scenes of an abandoned house being torn down, people scavenging for scrap metal amid ruined buildings and community meetings filled with pain and resentment.

In one sequence, anxiety over the future is expressed by Raven Lounge owner Tommy Stephens, who asks some tough questions while visiting the North American International Auto Show after comparing the costs of the Chevy Volt to a Chinese competitor. “This global economy stinks!” he says.

“Detroiters get it; they really get it,” Ewing said. “They can articulate our place in the global food chain more than any people I’ve ever met, including most politicians.”

Stephens is one of three main recurring voices in the movie, which weaves together a multitude of images and includes a large number of people. The other two are Crystal Starr, a 28-year-old blogger and barista, and George McGregor, president of the UAW Local 22.

Starr, who has seen the movie, said she enjoyed it, but she wanted to see much more covered. Although many portraits of Detroit anger those who really know the city, she doesn’t think that will be the dominant reaction this time.

“Maybe people will get pissed off, but I don’t think that will be the initial response from viewers,” Starr said.

McGregor, who is seen at tense meetings with union members, is enthusiastic: “They did a great job. They told the story of Detroit, point-blank. I feel in my heart, it was in divine order. It goes beyond us. It’s going to help others.”

Another big presence in the movie is the Michigan Opera Theatre, which symbolizes the vibrancy of the arts in the city (and which Ewing’s family has long supported). In one scene, a young tenor, Noah Stewart, is shown singing inside a People Mover car.

Ewing said it was important to her to remind audiences of Detroit’s rich and diverse cultural life, including its growing community of young artistic types. “This is a state-of-the-art city with state-of-the-art arts institutions,” she said.

The film’s co-directors — as well as producer Craig Atkinson, a former Detroiter — were acutely aware of the pitfalls of overdoing the emphasis on Detroit’s physical decay. When they shot empty or decaying structures, Ewing said, their effort was “to photograph them in a way that made you feel like you’d like to see that structure rebuilt, or you’d like to see that building repainted or renovated, or you’d like to see people inside it.”

Sundance can be an important venue for documentaries such as “Detropia.” Past conversation launchers include 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which spread Al Gore’s warning about global warming, and 2009’s “The Cove,” which shed light on dolphin hunting.

Ewing wants a wide audience to take this message away: “Detroit must be helped. It must be propped up. It must be encouraged. You want the audience to walk away with the feelings of pride in Detroit. That’s a lot to accomplish in a film, but you can always hope.”