Friday, January 18, 2013

Movie Review: Detropia

Directed by: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady.

Detroit was once a thriving manufacturing city for the entire United States. Slowly but surely over the years, as one car company after after closed it factories or moved them overseas, Detroit became a poorer and poorer city, with high employment and a falling population. It is now estimated that the population is half of what it was during the boom times – and unemployment reaches over 30%. Even the auto bailout hasn’t helped very much. The city is broke and has no way of making more money. Once a great city, Detroit is now a mere shadow of its former self.

The excellent documentary Detropia doesn’t have any solutions to the problems. Nor is it really about how Detroit sunk down to the place where it’s at now. Instead, it is a portrait of what the city is now like – what the residents go through on a day to day basis, the struggles the city government has. To offset these scenes of quiet desperation, the directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady flash to the Detroit opera – which is still going, mainly because of payouts by the auto companies to try and make themselves look good. But if the city is emptying, who the hell cares if they still have “culture”?

The most memorable character in the movie is probably Mike Stevens – a retired teacher who now owns a blues bar. He is outspoken in his criticism for everyone who has helped to destroy Detroit, but also optimistic that it can – and will recover. He is convinced that sooner or later, his bar will start making money again – and he’ll be able to hire a cook (he does it himself now). He goes to the car show, and is in disbelief that an electric car in China costs $20,000 than the Chevy Volt. Yes, but, the Volt has many more features than that car – a Chevy representative tells him. Americans won’t want to drive that car, they assure him. But Stevens seems to remember the recent past better than the Chevy guys do – and when he mentions that is precisely what they used to say about Honda, they don’t have much to say, and quickly end the conversation.

We see Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing trying to do the best job he can – in a job no sane person would want. He has no good choices in front of him. His city has no money, and he needs to cut services. But if he cuts bus service for example, than many of the residents who still live in town would no longer be able to get to work. He comes up with a novel idea – move people in sparsely populated neighbourhoods into the more crowded ones – perhaps only half the city will be full, but at least than the city could concentrate all their money there – and the businesses in those areas might have more customers. Unsurprisingly, none of the people who are to be “relocated” are very happy about the plan.

We also meet an artist couple, who considered many places before deciding on moving to Detroit. What made them pick the Motor City? They could live cheaper there than anywhere else – and Detroit has more empty buildings and warehouses where they can practice their art.

The film is strangely beautiful. There is something haunting about the shots that Grady and Ewing of an abandoned Detroit. The often just let the images of the empty streets, empty lots, abandoned buildings, closed factories. I have come to think of Detroit of a broken, dirty city – and while Detropia shows that, it also has a sadly beautiful quality.

Detropia is a rather obvious title for the movie – and is not the title I would have chosen. That makes it sound like a more simple minded film – one that probably tries to advocate  a solution or tries to advance some sort of political agenda. That isn’t the case with Detropia. This is a film that looks at a once proud city, that is now probably destroyed forever. What are the solutions? Perhaps, as Detropia shows, there isn’t one.

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