Review: Detropia

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Director: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady (Freakanomics, Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka)
Producers: Craig Atkinson, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 90 min.

Detroit is dying.

It has been a slow death, one that started decades ago but has become progressively worse and over the last few years, the city has experienced a mass exodus; first the jobs and then the people who no longer had those jobs, all of which has left Detroit on life support. The once thriving metropolis, Car Capital of the world, a city which had grown to accommodate the growing middle class employed by the auto industry, is partly deserted. The big business in the city now: demolition. The city is tearing down entire blocks of houses which have been abandoned, the owners unable to pay taxes and the banks unable to sell, and so they sit empty, fodder for vagrants and kids looking for a few cheap thrills by setting a house on fire. No one to move to Detroit any more. Everyone wants out.

This is how Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Detropia begins, with a snapshot of a city on the verge of collapse. Detroit is broke, unable to provide essential services, like transportation and street lights, to some neighbourhoods. City official propose a mass relocation, create new urban centers that can be maintained but the residents aren’t happy. This sounds a lot like Germany in WWII, before things got really ugly and the walls and barbed wire went up. It’s easy to see their side, the people who have spent their entire lives here, making a life for themselves, but it’s also easy to see where the City is coming from. If there is to be a Detroit left on the map, the city needs a lifeline and they’re willing to take risks after all, what’s left to lose when things already look so bleak?

Industry is slowly returning but not quickly enough and those who manage to work often do so with the hopes of finding their way out of the dying city. It’s a sad state of affairs, one that shines a microcosm on the harsh realities of the global economy. It may have started in Detroit but the problem is spreading like cancer. It’s slow but it threatens to invade and wreak havoc from within. The cure? There’s no easy way to fix it but I’m sure there’s a solution.

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Ewing and Grady’s documentary is cynical. Neither director makes a statement in front of the camera. Instead they allow their subjects, a local club owner, an Auto Workers Union president, the dying City itself, to speak for themselves. They speak louder than any statements ever could. There are the people who live in the city and there are facts, job loss numbers, the number of abandoned houses, the square footage of once thriving suburbs which have been left, abandoned to the weeds. There is death but there’s also life. There’s a vlogger who loves the City, explores it, hopes for it and shares its beauty with the world via the internet. There’s the culture that continues to thrive and the new blood which is finding Detroit the city of opportunity. Census numbers suggest that young people are finding their way downtown and newly arrived artists are finding beauty and affordability in the city. There may still be a bright future ahead for Detroit but it won’t look anything like the city we’ve come to know.

Detropia is depressing. It’s hard to see people mourning what used to be and hoping that the past makes a return but in the same breath, it’s also a documentary with a gleam of hope. By outlining the downfall of one city, Ewing and Grady are sending out a waning message and though they don’t provide any answers, Detropia suggests that there is a solution: change. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not easy but we need to be ready for it and embrace it because the wave of change will bring with it a brighter future. Or so we hope.