Details: 90 mins, United States, English
Synopsis: A documentary examining the economic downfall of the American city of Detroit.
A timely look at a once-great city in decline.
Detroit already has its own archeologists
AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE: The city of Detroit is a visual gift to filmmakers. Once the fastest growing metropolis in America, it’s now slowly shutting down as a family leaves every 20 minutes, businesses close and ruins become the architectural norm. In the grand buildings constructed in the 20th century, civilisation looks like it departed long ago, and the visual ambience of rubble and occasional squatting among cathedral ceilings and once grand spaces suggests a post-apocalyptic setting ready for an end of the world story.
For some directors that would be more than enough. The changing face of America has given rise to what some rightly call “ruin porn”, where the remnants of shrinking cities are artfully captured, but with Detropia the team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady not only catch the otherworldly imagery, they discover and document what life is like for the hundreds of thousands who still remain, clinging on to jobs and/or memories of what once was.
Detroit already has its own archeologists, such as blogger Crystal Starr, who navigates abandoned buildings and tries to recapture the “memory of this place when it was banging”. The story is focused on the community, particularly the working-class African-American neighbourhood, and while it takes in the first wave of post-crash artists looking for loft spaces with minimal rents and various intellectuals hoping to be present when the urban space of the future makes itself known, the main subjects are those with a connection to the city’s past.
Their numbers include Detroit’s mayor Dave Bing, who keeps reminding his constituents that the city is broke and offers the narrative impetus of a scheme to essentially shrink Detroit’s boundaries and bring in people from the outlying suburbs so services can be reduced and concentrated. If that makes you think of settlers retreating inside a fort, then the demolition of abandoned houses and the return of nature to scores of once inhabited urban blocks suggest that America’s mythic frontier is returning to America’s Midwest.
The directors – whose previous films include 2006’s Jesus Camp – pay attention to bar owners, preachers and union officials, taking in meetings where some of the remaining blue collar workers are offered a startling reduction in their hourly pay rate in exchange for a few more years of work before the next cut or close stand-off. The film is neither judgmental nor a demand for sympathy, and it directs you towards the efforts of the city’s people rather than your own verdict.
Thankfully, while Detroit’s Motown era is acknowledged – what remains of the automotive industry is essential – there’s no sixties pop nostalgia. The soundtrack is otherworldly and electronic, and it allows the film to suggest an ambitious visual assemblage where the ruins and the people are interconnected still even as they struggle for ascendancy. Debuting in Australia during an American Presidential election only adds to the poignant fascination of Detropia – Detroit may well be the first of many 21st century cities struggling to stay afloat.
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