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Scene In Detroit: ‘Detropia’ Fails in Idealism, Irony, and Integrity

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(Detropia publicity poster) "Detropia" presents a bleak view of Detroit.

(Detropia publicity poster) “Detropia” presents a bleak view of Detroit.

By Amelia Kanan, CBS Detroit Blogger 

Judging from Heidi Ewing’s Twitter feed, one gets the feeling she’s a typical proud Detroit native. Her icon photo shows her fist punching toward the camera with a two-finger Detroit ring, reflecting the honest spirit of the city. However, the new film “Detropia,” she made with Rachel Grady paints a much different picture of Detroit.

Compared to the film “After The Factory,” “Detropia” seems like a lazy and irresponsible documentary, shot with a disconnected and naive point of view. Detropia, shot in the dead of winter (a cheap way to cast a somber tone), seemed naive and insulting by the length of static shots.

Since the film is called a “cinematic collage,” this excuses the filmmakers from any responsibility to tell a story through professional editing and allows Grady and Ewing to boast long shots that reveal flat images of desolation, barren streets, bums and neglect.

Incomplete phrases and ideas are strung together in a disorganized manner, making the viewer feel like they’re sitting in the editing room, simply watching the footage. Sure, the film managed to capture a few colorful characters who added some life saving humor and truth, but they soon wear out their welcome due to their amount of screen time. Plus due to the imbalanced screen time between the cast, some characters’ importance was missed, like a performer at the Detroit Opera House.

Then there are others that just seem pointless, like the video blogger named Crystal who is shown entering abandoned buildings with her video camera and talks about how cool it is. The only attempt to highlight Detroit residents who differ from the stereotypical ones is the story of two non-native, pretentious artists who had blindly moved to Detroit because of its cheap property.

There wasn’t anything visualized or proven in this film that hasn’t been talked about to death already. The salvageable points of the film are issues and events that have been talked about to death: the boom of the auto industry, the riots and white flight, the abandonment, the political corruption, the desolation and the destruction of Detroit. It’s laughable how much of this film’s timeline was dedicated to old footage from the auto industry, people complaining about work and scrappers.

In fact, that was the deepest scene of all. As a crew of scrappers broke down an old structure, I couldn’t help but think that this ironically served as a metaphor for what Grady and Ewing have done to Detroit with Detropia?

This misrepresentation of the city’s current state is not only untrue but genuinely offensive to those who live, work and love this city. The idea of Detroit being abandoned and desolate is played out and only mocks Detroit’s vulnerability and discredits its actual strength. Detroit’s newest developments weren’t around when Detropia was in production but there were still many up and coming ideas, small businesses were opening, pop-up’s began to play a key role, mini movements were in the works and an exciting vibe started running through the streets when Ewing and Grady were filming their “cinematic tapestry”.

The Dequindre Cut had just opened, Phil Cooley and Slow’s had been around for 5 years and the The New York Times had already written about it, authentic local artists were beginning to take social initiative and a camaraderie that crossed racial and socio-economic divides was forming. Oddly enough, the corporate media has done a much better job in genuinely authenticating Detroit’s success in contrast to the indie documentary.

Martha Stewart featured Corktown in her magazine, Travel + Leisure have chronicled stories that generate an exciting buzz for tourists, Andrew Nelson of National Geographic wrote a “shining” piece, and The Food Network and Travel Channel have hyped up the local foodie scene.

This wasn’t Grady and Ewing’s first rodeo. Among a few other projects, the two made the well-known and successful “Jesus Camp.” A documentary that exposes a Christian summer camp’s teachings and army of children being raised from them. Since the film was fortunate enough to have strong footage and characters with chilling quotes, Ewing and Grady didn’t have to do much. They were let off the hook to not have to shape a story, write, organize, edit properly and formulate a point because their subject matter was so spellbinding.

These two filmmakers seem talented in the respect that they are able to push a button on a camera and roll for hours and hours. This isn’t always a bad thing but when it comes time to edit, it’s in your audience and your film’s best interest to chop it up and tell a story with that footage.

The most disheartening of all is the praise that Detropia has received. In a review for The New Yorker, David Denby refers to the film as “lyrical.” It’s saddening that such an accomplished critic was so seduced by images of urban decay that he bit the bait and overlooked the actual filmmaking talent or lack thereof. Detropia tried to be lyrical. Grady and Ewing attempted to weave the Detroit Opera House and performers through the film but due to the filmmaker’s lack of commitment, blind introduction and disorganization of locations and characters it fell flat. The presence of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra felt as if it was used to manipulate the audience into feeling something artsy because Opera music played over cold and dirty images of an empty city.

I’ve been back in Detroit for almost a year now and in that time, I can tell you that I have never felt alone on a city street or isolated from some semblance of a real world. I have heard good live music, eaten extremely well and met a whole new network of people who are encouraging, supportive and down to earth. I’m ashamed and embarrassed of Detropia, not just as the Detroit advocate I am but as a filmmaker.

Amelia Kanan is freelance writer/photographer and a returning native of Detroit. A graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, she wrote for an Emmy nominated sketch comedy show and pursued her passion for documentary filmmaking in Los Angeles. An incomplete list of her loves: books, human rights, improv, the smell of new shoes, talking to strangers, libraries, France, yoga, furniture, music, sociology and pushing the limits.

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