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October 18, 2012
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On screen in Aspen: 'Detropia,' an epic urban tale

ASPEN - The statistics are dramatic, devastating, absurd almost to the point of comical. The average home in Detroit is $7,100. Since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Detroit has lost more residents than New Orleans by approximately 100,000. More people have left Detroit than live in San Francisco. Seventy public schools in Detroit closed in 2010, with another 70 due to shut by 2014, which would leave 72 public schools in the city. In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world.They are the kinds of statistics that tell a narrative on their own. And "Detropia," a documentary by Rachel Grady and Detroit area native Heidi Ewing, flashes such facts across the screen occasionally. (And this one: Detroit has 40,000 abandoned homes and 100,000 vacant residential lots.)But Grady and Ewing's film is not Detroit-by-numbers, not an academic analysis on what went wrong. Nor is it a confrontational assault on those behind the decline, along the lines of a Michael Moore documentary. (It should be noted, though, that "Detropia" is a thematic cousin to Moore's 1989 debut "Roger & Me," which traced the decline of Flint, Mich. - 66 miles up I-75 from Detroit - to General Motors CEO Roger Smith and the shuttering of GM plants.)"Detropia" is poetic and personal. A review in The New Yorker called it "the most moving documentary ... in years." Much of the visual content centers on architecture - quiet, lingering images of once-graceful buildings that are now lonely and abandoned, doing nothing but bearing witness to the fall. The film opens with a performance by the Detroit Opera, and scenes of the opera return throughout the movie's 88 minutes. The emphasis on the Detroit Opera reinforces the reality that there once stood here a great city, capable of supporting a first-rate opera company. It also establishes the grand themes to which "Detropia" aspires."There's something operatic about the city itself," Grady, a native of Washington, D.C., said from the offices of Loki Films, the company she runs with Ewing on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "It's where Henry Ford came up with one of the most ingenious inventions of the 20th century. It was part of the great migration to the industrial north. It's where the middle-class was defined and executed. It's a litmus test, a canary in the coal mine for the American dream. It's the rise and fall of a great American city. "It's epic, like opera: Is this our first failed city? I hope with all my heart the answer is no. But it is in pretty desperate shape."Here's how bad it is. Grady and Ewing - who are known best for 2006's "Jesus Camp," an Oscar-nominated film about an evangelical Christian summer camp for kids - originally set out, about five years ago, to tell an uplifting story about the Motor City. They even had a title - "Detroit Hustles Harder" - for what Grady calls a "phoenix from the ashes" tale about the influx of young creative types lured to Detroit by the cut-rate cost of living."That's a reminder that you can't invent a story," Grady said, "that there's a story to be discovered. We had to really surrender to the discovery process. The reality is there are a lot of people struggling. That got our attention more."Documentary filmmakers, of course, do choose what story to tell, they choose just where to point their camera. But in the case of modern-day Detroit, Grady and Ewing's choices were extremely limited. Asked whether there were parts of the city that told a different story, Grady said, basically there were not."There are pockets - and when I say pockets, I mean five or so square blocks, and there are five of them in all Detroit, that are kept up, still populated," she said. "We're talking about less than one percent of the city. People from Detroit say, 'Well, what about Palmer Woods?' That's based on nostalgia. We say, 'When's the last time you lived there?' These pockets employ their own security.""Detropia," which shows Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, tells of Detroit's decline largely through three well-selected voices, all African-American (Detroit is 82 percent black): Crystal Starr, a 28-year-old barista and aspiring poet with a dreamy take on her hometown; George McGregor, a spunky but realistic 60-something president of a chapter of the United Auto Workers; and Tommy Stephens, a retired teacher and now the colorful, talkative operator of the Raven Lounge, a nightclub located in the shadow of an auto assembly plant.What these people - presented as residents of Detroit, not as talking heads, a documentary device to which Grady and Ewing have a severe aversion - project is not exactly sunny, but a sense of having become accustomed to grim realities, and philosophical about them. It is a tone expressed perfectly by Stanley Christmas, a former candidate for mayor of Detroit, talking about the city's dropping murder rate: "I don't mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn't anyone left to kill." If nothing else, the people spotlighted in "Detropia" are engaged in the conversation of how to make Detroit at least livable."There's something about that spirit that I find encouraging. It works. They can't be naively optimistic in a vacuum," Grady said.Detroit is extreme, but it is not unique. Among the themes that Grady and Ewing tease out of "Detropia" is that Detroit is a cautionary tale for much of urban America. The biggest warning, depicted in the film in union meetings, tours around desolate neighborhoods, and a dynamic scene of Tommy Stephens at an auto trade show, is America's vanishing manufacturing base.Detroit's "got all the issues every city faces, but in a very concentrated way," Grady said. "In the global economy, we're doing a lot of things wrong. It's cut-throat. You're dealing with countries that have three times the number of people and are extremely motivated."A more unusual theme and bigger philosophical question emerge from "Detropia": When do you give up? When do you ditch history, habit and nostalgia and start packing it in?This has become the practical reality of Detroit; Grady brings up a poll showing that 40 percent of those still living in Detroit plan to leave in the next five years. Bizarrely, it is also official policy. "Detropia" captures scenes of the demolition of abandoned houses, part of a city-sanctioned effort to raze 10,000 empty residences. On camera, Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons all-star and now the city's mayor, outlines a proposal to shrink the place - to move people out of the worst neighborhoods and focus attention on the few sections that are functioning."Since when is taking away your platform? It's so contradictory to what you would ever think of a mayor, a politician, advocating for," Grady said. "That speaks volumes for the city. But I understand it. On paper, it's the only sensible thing to do. In practice, it's absurd to drive people away from their homes, the ones who have really stuck with the city. "But it's all happening on its own. The city is shutting down all on its own."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 19, 2012 06:21AM Published Oct 18, 2012 12:38PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.