Is its shrinking middle class a microcosm of America?
Few films have the power to pull on the heart-strings of an entire city. Until now.
For many people around the world, Detroit is a symbol of downsizing, economic failure and the butt of many jokes. But a new documentary film about the city, “Detropia,” sets out to dispel the many stereotypes and urban legends that surround it.
The movie was played at the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor as part of the theater’s Motor City Movies series with a special Q&A from its director, Heidi Ewing.
The movie is a documentary about the people of Detroit and how they are living their lives in a city that has become a shell of its former self.
The film follows several Detroit residents and documents how they are dealing with hard times. They include a video-blogger, an aging nightclub owner who lost much of his business when the auto industry downsized, a union president trying to prevent more union jobs from disappearing and a young artist who is thrilled he can afford to live in a huge loft apartment in a major city.
Anticipation in line for the premier was high.
“I’m curious to see what’s going on in Detroit, Belle Isle in particular,” said Carey Jernigan. “I’m just anxious to see it. I don’t know what to expect.”
As the movie began, the sounds sadness could be heard throughout the crowd when scenes of Detroit’s hardships played, followed by laughter when one of the documentary’s subjects said something whimsical or unexpected.
When the credits began to roll, the sound of thunderous applause bellowed throughout the historic theater.
Ewing came out onstage to answer audience questions, accompanied by the Editor of the Metro Times, W. Kim Heron.
“People should see this film,” Heron said. “It’s a powerful movie that shows Detroit still has hope.”
Ewing is proud of the work despite some unusual practices in the early stages of planning for the film.
“We broke the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking, which we tell other filmmakers not to do,” Ewing said. “We went into this with an agenda and a title already.
“We were going to call it “Detroit Hustles Harder,” which was a great slogan Detroit had,” he said. “It was going to be like a phoenix rising kind of story. Other cities would look to Detroit for solutions for their own problems. That was the original idea for the film.”
But as she started filming and talking to people, the filmmakers started to see other themes emerge. Ewing decided to see where it would take them.
“A lot of people hadn’t heard of the revitalization of Detroit. We started filming people who could leave Detroit, but chose to stay for whatever reason.”
Ewing was asked how they found all of the people in the film. She said she started talking to people they already knew.
“I would ask people, ‘if you were to make a film about Detroit, who are the10 people you would absolutely not miss, tell me who I am going to miss and who I shouldn’t miss,’” she said.
The problem with filming a large city like Detroit is that you are never going to get the whole story, Ewing added.
Another audience member asked why the film didn’t bring any attention to the education system in Detroit.
“We went down that road. Education is a problem that is affecting all of America, not just Detroit,” Ewing said. “But in the film, we had to make some choices, so we choseto feature the decline of the manufacturing base in Detroit.”
The film is about the middle class and people who thought they didn’t need a manufacturing market to keep it alive to sustain a middle class lifestyle and, unfortunately, haven’t found anything to replace the millions of jobs lost.
“The country is trying to find a way to prevent the middle class from becoming the working poor,” Ewing said. “Detroit is the city to watch to see how policies affect the middle class.”
Detroit has a well-intentioned, uncorrupt, smart man in office. But being the mayor of Detroit is the most thankless job in America, Ewing added.
For the final question of the night, someone asked Ewing to show the film to presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
“That’s funny, I heard he saved Detroit,” Ewing said. “I think both Obama and Romney would reject this film right now because it doesn’t fit into anyone’s feeling about the city right now.”
Detroit may be in a slump right now, but Ewing said she optimistic about a comeback.
“I think there’s hope in every single one of our subjects (in the film). Detroit is a tough city for its 713,000 residents. I think the revitalization may happen, for real.”
“Detropia” is screening at Ren Cen 4 in Detroit. For a complete list of where to see the film, visit detropiathefilm.com.