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One of the strongest scenes from "Detropia," playing three more times during the Milwaukee Film Festival.
One of the strongest scenes from "Detropia," playing three more times during the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Beautifully shot "Detropia" focuses on Detroit's dark side

"Detropia," a documentary about the social and economic transformation of Detroit, is a visually stunning film, capturing the eerie beauty of abandoned neighborhoods filled with burned-out, heavily graffiti-ed and broken-windowed buildings. But despite the aesthetics, the film focuses almost entirely on Detroit's decline – mostly due to the loss of the auto industry – and under-explores the city's vast artistic and entertainment-based achievements in recent years.

The film isn't narrated, rather guided by three African-American residents: video blogger Crystal Starr, president of a United Auto Workers local George McGregor and retired schoolteacher Tommy Stephens, who also owns a restaurant and music club called the Raven's Lounge that's near an automotive plant.

Stephens is particularly compelling and provides a likable, intelligent face to the people who are struggling but still living in Detroit.

All three residents work well to add a very personal perspective, a necessary component to the colder and harsher statistics that flash across the screen before shots of the city throughout the film, which include that Detroit, the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930, is now the fastest shrinking in the United States, with more than 100,000 abandoned homes.

Although the film includes expanded scenes like McGregor conducting a meeting with the workers over how to respond to American Axle's proposed severe wage cuts (from $14.35 to $11 per hour), the most moving events were the most fleeting.

In one scene, a woman attends a community hearing with local officials to ask that her bus route remain in operation. She explains that she already works for minimum wage and has to catch her bus by 7:30 a.m. to make it to work by 10 a.m., but if the route's eliminated, she'll be unable to keep her job.

In another scene, some of the letters from an auto parts store sign fell off and were replaced by taggers to spell out, ironically, the word "Utopia." ("Detropia" is a mash-up of the words "Detroit" and "dystopia," the opposite of utopia).

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer up a few snippets of hope, including the statistic that there's been a 59 percent increase in young people moving to Downtown Detroit. The film also, briefly, introduces two white, New York artists who moved to Detroit for the chance to live in a really nice loft apartment for $700 a month.

But the optimism doesn't come in until the final portion of the documentary, and it feels glossed over and unfair to the current state of the city. Detroit is thriving in many ways, with new businesses cropping up and strengthening neighborhoods like Corktown.

The directors' choice, for example, to shoot the massive, once glorious train station – now abandoned and debris-strewn – but not acknowledge the numerous new bars and restaurants less than a block away, including the extremely popular Slow's Bar-B-Q, reveal that the documentary was more focused on presenting the same old, same old snapshot of Detroit and not the city that it's evolving into.

Also, the fact that efforts like The Heidelberg Project weren't included was a serious oversight.

Collections of artful photographs showing the city as an abandoned pile of rubble have appeared in magazines and circulated on Facebook, and in one scene the documentary touches on the fact that many Detroit natives are tired of the glorification surrounding the city's "decay," a word that's been completely overused to describe Detroit. The scene involves Swiss tourists who enter the coffee shop where Starr works behind the counter and tell her they're in Detroit to check out the decay – and she's clearly annoyed.

Although the documentary was filmed in 2009 and 2010 and a lot has changed in the city in the last two years, the fact there wasn't more emphasis on the growth of the city made "Detropia" tell, mostly, only one side of the story.

Indeed, Detroit is still struggling and serves as a chilling example of what could happen to other cities in the country, but it's also a complicated, dynamic urban area where phoenixes are finally starting to emerge from the flames.

Talkbacks

cbbush | Oct. 4, 2012 at 1:49 p.m. (report)

Molly, you sum this up very well. I am from Michigan and my heart hurts when I hear people degrade Detroit and consider only its crime or political strife. Worst of all, many seem to promote the idea in mainstream media that Detroit is unworthy of attention or effort; it is a sad punchline that ignores the many amazing advances it has to offer. You are absolutely right to point out the impact of the Heidelberg Project, and I'm thrilled you not only had a Labatt's but also ate a Coney. The Henry Ford, the DIA, and Motown Museums are all wonderful gems. A recommendation for your next trip would also be the Rouge Plant (part of the Henry Ford) and eating at Greektown. There is NO Greek food in Milwaukee like the saganaki of Greektown!

Thank you for your beautifully written words: "a complicated, dynamic urban area where phoenixes are finally starting to emerge from the flames..." Amen.

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