Detropia (Loki Films, NR)

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detropia sqIt’s as if Detroit always lived on dreams, so it’s not altogether surprising if those dreams seem to have turned, at least temporarily, into nightmares.


detropia 500

The city of Detroit has been in a bad way for some time now and is currently teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, a not unexpected result of having lost 50 percent of its manufacturing jobs and 25 percent of its population over the last 10 years. For the record, that makes it the fastest shrinking city in the United States, a sad contrast to the 1930s, when it was the fastest growing, and work in the auto factories offered many people their first chance at a middle-class life. City officials are currently engaged in a massive consolidation project, knocking down abandoned homes and encouraging residents of marginal neighborhoods to move to those more densely populated, where it will be easier and cheaper to provide them with services.

Given these well-known facts, the real surprise in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Detropia is how beautiful it is. Shooting on high-definition video, Ewing and Grady have found visual poetry in the ruins of this once-great city. Detropia is a tone poem of a decaying city, recalling with some irony the great “city symphonies” of the silent era (most famously, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt). At the same time, the unbowed spirits of those who remain in Detroit give you hope that somehow the city and its residents will find a way to work it all out.

Detropia (the title suggests a combination of “Detroit” and “dystopia”) is a cinematic collage giving the viewer glimpses at different aspects of life in the city, from a union meeting where workers are insulted at the thought of taking a $2.50-per-hour pay cut (they end up with nothing, as the plant closes), to the Detroit Opera House (where 70 percent of corporate funding comes from the Big 3 auto manufacturers), to an auto show where the Chevy Volt is compared, not favorably, with a Chinese competitor (fun fact: China has been the world’s largest car market since 2009).

Clips from several operatic performance (including a performance of the Mikado, in which the Lord High Executioner includes several automobile models on his “little list” of things that would not be missed from the world) and from classic and contemporary automobile shows increase the film’s surreal quotient—it’s as if Detroit always lived on dreams, so it’s not altogether surprising if those dreams seem to have turned, at least temporarily, into nightmares.

Detroit is not without hope, however. One of the brightest of the bright spots is the surge of young, college-educated people moving into its downtown area. The city’s main attraction is the remarkably low cost of housing, and many of these new residents are artists entranced by the thought that there is a place they can live and do their art without going into hock just to pay the rent.

No one knows how what’s coming next in the saga of Detroit, and Ewing and Grady make no attempt to make predictions or find solutions. Some of their on-camera subjects do, but that’s to be expected—people always want to make sense of their lives, and believing that you have a solution for your problems (or even that there is a solution) is probably a basic survival mechanism. | Sarah Boslaugh

Detropia will be screened in the Winifred Moore Auditorium on October 12, 13, and 14 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Webster University Film Series. Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster University staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper I.D.

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