Detropia, the new documentary by the two person team that put together the alarming Jesus Camp, shows the desertion of Detroit caused by migrating jobs and the failing economy. An interesting, timely premise of course, but the film ultimately crashes against documentary sin after sin and ends up being nothing but beautiful footage of a broken city.
To my mind, there are three cardinal rules of good documentary filmmaking that were broken by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing who directed and produced it. First, the film taught nothing new. Second, the film refused to show any impartiality to the material. And third, it lacked anything resembling a solution to the problems that it decries, not even trying to find any good in the abandoned heaping trash.
When I claim the film taught nothing, I mean that it did not give any concrete reasoning for the situation in which Detroit finds itself. The filmmakers leave it to uncredible people to muse and guess at why things ended up the way they did, without even trying to convey hard evidential truth. There were subtitled facts sprinkled throughout, though they were never specific or sourced. The one instance of expert level information that they documented was a fact-finding mission by the Detroit Urban Planning commission. It was a brief scene, and ended with Mayor David Bing saying, “Have to start doing something, that’s got to happen.” Of course this illustrated a point the filmmakers wanted to get across, but surely their story doesn’t end there.
This film was complete demagogy, only hoping to stir the emotions of the audience and get them to gawk at the destroyed buildings and nod their head at dispossessed people who blamed someone else. It doesn't seem to attempt to communicate or investigate any underlying causes or back-story. Its only concern was the ill informed testimonies of those who may not be entirely sure of what they speak, emphatic and heart wrenching as they were. Detropia came close to feeling manipulative as note after note was pushed, directing the audience to agree with the lack of information provided.
With the duo's last outing, Jesus Camp, it can certainly be argued that the team was there to capture events, and let the story tell itself. That same thing isn't possible in a situation like the downfall of Detroit. There are multiple players responsible for multiple things. As the documentarians decide to only show a sliver of all that information, they are entirely telling the story. With their lack of impartiality, I fear that they thought they would accomplish the same thing as the Bible school in Jesus Camp, letting the people of Detroit speak for themselves. But then the filmmakers chose to convey what they said as a whole truth.
My charge is this: Without ever trying to document multiple sides of this hugely complex historical event, it is utterly only telling part of the story. And if you were to sell this small part of the story as the whole story, it ends up dangerously close to feeling untrue.
My last point lies in the fact that the filmmakers neither offered any solutions nor attempted to find anyone that could. Some small portion of the film deals with Mayor Bing trying to consolidate the city by pushing citizens to move to neighborhoods felt to have a greater longevity. This is a vastly intriguing subject on its own, and I would love to watch a documentary simply on this developed idea and the attempt to enforce it. Unfortunately, Detropia lets the issue be defined by the loud, anarchic town hall meeting to discuss it. And this was the one thing that came close to a solution being discussed.
Off the top of my head, I can remember hearing at least two urban renewal plans for Detroit on NPR in the past year. I find it distressing that the filmmakers made no mention of the hopeful people that are putting great effort into saving whatever portion of the city they can. Instead, this was the film equivalent of a guy on the sidewalk with a huge sign that reads, “The End is Nigh.”
The movie did offer its own brand of poignancy. Different personal moments captured the larger, hopeless theme quite imaginatively. Whether it’s the union leader slowing down and nudging a dog to get out of the way before it’s run over, or the blues bar man whisking spiders and wasps off an awning saying they have to find a new home; there is a deftness to the story telling. Grady and Ewing have a wonderful eye as the combinations of characters and settings they follow grasp and clash with each other. Sincerely, I say that these are talented people, I only wish they could have told a much better tale.