A Despairing and Unbalanced Portrayal of Detroit at the Sundance Film Festival

And now for something completely different. An actually serious film review regarding a film that’s great for anyone who wants to believe Detroit is dead and buried–and insulting to everyone else.

By Ulises Silva

Documentaries have the power to educate, inform, and raise awareness, especially on topics or places that are only accessible through film by most people. Documentary filmmakers, then, have a responsibility to present their portrayals in a careful, balanced manner. To do otherwise is to introduce inaccuracies and exaggerations that, to viewers who may not know better, become irrefutable fact.

Which is why Detropia, a documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady that portrays Detroit as a microcosm of the eroding U.S. manufacturing base and its dire economic consequences, is an unwarranted slap in the face to the city of Detroit and its residents.

I was fortunate to attend this year’s Sundance Film Festival as a blogger for National Geographic’s All Road Films Project. Detropia was the one film I knew I had to see independently, curious to see how a documentary would portray the city I work in alongside so many community development partners. Like many Detroiters, I was anxious about the film, thinking, “How are they going to portray us this time,” knowing full well that the media and filmmakers have long since made Detroit their ruin porn site of choice.

Sadly, Detropia is just stylized ruin porn that paints an unblinkingly bleak and hopeless picture.

From a technical standpoint, the film is terrific. It’s a documentary that fuses images and interviews to tell a compelling, engaging story. You lean in and listen carefully to the anecdotes and thoughts of its interview subjects, including the owner of the Raven Lounge, the president of the UAW Local 22, and a young Detroit blogger who goes into abandoned houses to get a sense of their past and history. It’s a captivating narrative from start to finish, and its central message—that the millions of lost jobs across the country will have catastrophic consequences if we don’t do something now—is irrefutable.

But where the film goes wrong is in using Detroit as a case study to make its point, and doing so in a very selective and disturbingly slanted manner. The film strips Detroit naked, shoving it in front of a gawking audience, pointing to its vulnerability and its despair, saying, “Don’t let this happen to your city.”

Think of any urban decay cliché, and chances are, it’s in the film. The opening shots—a liquor store, a grimy dollar store, an empty, littered street with a plastic bag fluttering by like a lost tumbleweed—set a despairing tone that never relents, where images like these are juxtaposed against stock footage of Detroit’s storied history of prosperity. We see a house being demolished, and many more that probably should be. We see the lots overgrown with weeds. After an hour or so of this, we’re treated to images of a blinding snowstorm, where a single Detroit resident walks down a desolate street looking utterly miserable. And, of course, we see the Michigan Train Depot, the historic eyesore that’s mandatory in any Detroit ruin porn project.

Interspersed throughout are the stories of the film’s interview subjects, and their tone is similarly lamenting and despairing. Detroit, as seen through this film, has no future, because its residents can only look backwards and lament over what once was.

Those who try to look forward are either contained within the film’s brief account of the Detroit Works Project, or encapsulated in brief interviews with Detroit’s growing population of young professionals and artists. We sit in on an urban planning meeting where Mayor Dave Bing is being briefed on the need to downsize the city. But the film cuts to a town hall meeting, where outraged citizens decry any attempts to downsize Detroit, and Mayor Bing is made to look utterly impotent as he stands and listens to their cries.

The young artists the film features, meanwhile, hardly seem like the solution to Detroit’s problems. One young artist explains that he came to Detroit because of its affordability. To him, Detroit is a safe bet: “Because if we fail,” he says, “we haven’t fallen anywhere.” Not exactly a stirring endorsement or ringing profession of loyalty to the city. Nor do the other two artists featured throughout the film—a young couple in gold-plated gas masks—demonstrate anything other than an oblivious detachment from other residents as they stand at busy intersections holding signs that only they themselves get.

In a way, the filmmakers themselves appear grossly detached from the city they are documenting because of their selective choice of imagery. There’s no denying that Detroit has its problems, not the least of which is the blight that the film fetishizes or the economic struggles that have rendered the City government impotent. But to make its point—that what happened to Detroit will happen to other cities—the film picks and chooses what it wants to show, looking only at the negatives as if they’re all there is, conveniently ignoring the realities that might otherwise compromise the narrative of despair.

The penultimate shot of the film is of the abandoned building on the corner of 14th and Michigan, yet the camera never swings a few feet to the right to show Slow’s BBQ, the commercial corridor revitalization happening all around it, or the growing vibrancy of historic Corktown. There’s no mention of the millions being invested in Downtown and Midtown or of the thousands of employees moving in. There’s no mention of any of the work done by Detroit’s many community development organizations. We see Belle Isle but not Grandmont/Rosedale, East English Village, Southwest Detroit, or any of the city’s more prosperous, vibrant areas. Detroit’s brilliant assets—its museums, its universities, its health systems, its people and their irrevocable sense of pride—are almost entirely absent from the film save for the Detroit Opera House. Which, according to the film, is also going to go broke anyway.

The filmmakers compounded these omissions during the Q&A session that followed the film. Speaking from a position of authority, they shared simplified exaggerations and inaccuracies that, to an undiscerning audience, became fact. When they said that there’s only one functional grocery store in the entire city (a number that’s off by about 114), the audience gasped. When they mentioned the Woodward Light Rail project and said that “we were supposed to get a very fast train but now we’re getting really fast buses,” the audience laughed. When one person asked why they didn’t feature the positive aspects of Detroit, including Midtown, the filmmakers meekly remarked that they did. They showed us the Detroit Opera House, which they said was in Midtown—notwithstanding the fact that it’s actually in Downtown.

In the end, the filmmakers excused their omissions on the premise that they had a story to tell, and so had to be selective about what they showed. But it’s inexcusable to drag Detroit through the mud to make a point, and to ignore its many positives and the steadfast perseverance of its residents, just to warn other cities. Detroit is shrinking, but it’s not giving up. It’s not a cautionary tale to anyone other than the manufacturers that continue to outsource jobs overseas. And it’s not a dying hospice patient laying still and helpless so that others can walk by and gawk and thank their lucky stars their cities aren’t in so bad a shape.

It’s ironic in a sad, comical way that one of the filmmakers told the audience, “Please move to Detroit!” at the conclusion of the Q&A. Because after watching this pick-and-choose narrative of gloom, despair, and hopelessness, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in the audience decided, then and there, to never set foot in Detroit.

4 responses to “A Despairing and Unbalanced Portrayal of Detroit at the Sundance Film Festival

  1. Great read. Horrible documentary. I was going through a photographers instagram photos yesterday since he likes to shoot Detroit and I was highly disappointed because his interpretation of our city was abandonment, decay and of course the old train station. People repeating this type of art does nothing for the city nor themselves. This disparaging story has been told a million times and it’s simply played out and unoriginal. Like you stated, there is so much beauty and growth that can be highlighted in the city. Pieces like this documentary does nothing but validate what people think they know about Detroit.

  2. Pingback: Detropia « angelinaczar

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