Tuesday, January 22, 2013


[Piano to the left. Click for a larger view.]

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary film Detropia (2012) is everything that Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989) is not. There is no tidy, ironic narrative of decline here: Ewing and Grady explore the wreckage of a city that has already failed. (Moore's narrative plays fast and loose with chronology.) No one is on camera to be laughed at: the men and women we hear speaking are angry, dignified, and, often, wise. And Ewing and Grady (makers of the 2006 film Jesus Camp) are present only as unheard, unseen observers and editors. The know that the story is not about them.

Detropia juxtaposes scenes of unimaginable blight with scenes of resourceful citizenship and entrepreneurship. We see residents who refuse to resign themselves to the absence of police in their neighborhood. We see other residents who are determined to keep the Detroit Opera House alive. (One man chooses to stay in the city because he sings in the chorus.) We see the workings of a (sometimes literally) underground economy: a man who cuts hair in the basement of his house, another who fashions barbecue pits from storage drums and bedrails, a woman who plans to set up a cart selling eighty-proof snowcones. And everywhere, there are small groups scavenging metal from abandoned buildings. The cruel twist is that China is a principal market for American scrap, so the scrappers are feeding the very forces that have led to lower wages and massive unemployment in their city. Perhaps the strangest development in this surreal landscape: the presence of immigrant hipsters, attracted by the prospect of living in what one calls, without irony, a “dead city.”

In the theater of my imagination, Detropia and The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield, 2012) would make a perfect double-bill.

The films’ websites
The Queen of Versailles

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