The new documentary Detropia, currently making the festival rounds after premiering at Sundance in January, does not glorify Detroit's struggle. Instead, it forces Americans to confront the staggering challenges facing the city and its place in the decline of the American dream.
It is an undeniably uncomfortable story, especially for those who believe a renewed Motor City is already on its way. A special screening in Detroit was poorly received. The invite-only audience of well-connected, civic-minded individuals wasn't shy about telling directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady it felt they had missed the mark.
Initially, Ewing and Grady did not intend to tell this kind of story. After a recent screening at the Maryland Film Festival, Grady explained that they had originally wanted to showcase Detroit on its way to a new beginning. But slowly, during filming, they came to believe that angle was dishonest. The city they found was in ruins. The filmmakers capture this through planning meetings and blues clubs, decaying architecture and depressing auto-worker union meetings.
Detropia gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the city's key institutions. In one scene, we watch as the city government tries to sell a plan for rightsizing. This brings out an understandable amount of fear and outrage. The residents' loyalty to their city is met with announcements that they will lose essential services or face relocation.
Again and again, viewers bear witness to this dynamic of loyalty rewarded with pain. Detroiters are depicted as emotionally exhausted from the concessions they've already made, even as they know they will be asked to make more.
Decades of negative news from what was once the "Paris of the West" makes us want the stories of converted factories, avant garde art scenes, and vacant lots turned into community gardens. But Detropia argues that whatever good is emerging in Detroit is not yet capable of stopping the city's spectacular collapse. Instead, the documentary braces us for an urban tragedy yet to be completed.