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Documentary ponders the decay and future of Detroit

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A still from Detropia, which quietly draws together diverse strands of urban life in decline


Opens at the Charles Theatre Oct. 19

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When I WAS about 10 years old, a man in my neighborhood had a heart attack while crossing the street, buckling onto the blacktop. My mother, a nurse, leapt to perform CPR as a crowd gathered, watching until an ambulance arrived and whisked the man away. The strange thing about extreme situations is that, while on one hand observing simply feels wrong, at the same time it seems equally inhuman to turn one’s back and walk away. There are forces guiding us beyond our control and sometimes all we can do is observe and try to understand. Such is the power behind Detropia, the latest from filmmaking duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp). Exploring the decay of Detroit, a once-thriving metropolis, the film lands on different characters and scenes throughout the city, granting viewers the chance to survey and perhaps better understand its downfall.

Overall, Detropia is a nebulous creature, lacking the straightforward structure one might expect from a feature-length film. Quietly, it focuses on different figures dwelling within the city, capturing fragments of their lives before moving on. Despite the rather loose structure, Ewing and Grady keep the film from sprawling out of control, and editor Enat Sidi moves the action gracefully from scene to scene, connecting two mismatched pieces via precision-perfect timing and a keen eye.

Of course, Detroit’s descent isn’t new territory waiting to be explored, but the filmmakers’ approach is innovative nonetheless. While shots of a toppled grand piano or a husk of a building swaying in the evening breeze would be a tragically beautiful slam-dunk for any documentarian or photographer, Ewing and Grady stitch all of it together to form a complex portrait of an American city.

Though the film introduces different people scattered throughout the region, there are a few who hold the camera’s gaze longer than the rest, providing an anchor for the audience. There’s the union president fighting wage cuts and layoffs, the vlogger climbing into abandoned buildings to explore their contents, the retired schoolteacher/nightclub owner hoping the economy and the auto industry will bounce back from the brink of collapse.

For the most part, Detropia has a hands-off, observational approach, but sparse titles drop in to explain or enrich certain scenes. During a performance at the Detroit Opera House, a man comes onstage to thank the audience for their support, saying that art can save the city. In a wide shot of the stage, we see ads for Ford placed on the periphery and a title fades in to clarify that it’s actually the three major auto companies keeping the place afloat. While the structure is loose throughout, the influence of the auto industry courses through each moment, showing how the city is shaped by its tides.

The cinematography is a highlight of the film, thanks to Craig Atkinson and Tony Hardmon, who glide gracefully through moments like snow falling quietly over urban decay or an opera singer practicing before graffiti-splashed walls. Thankfully, Ewing and Grady keep the film from veering toward the overly indulgent or gratuitously artsy. The film’s strength lies in the balance between art and documentation, in creating a visually stunning film that also tells the story of a city’s rise and fall.

Seven years since The Boys of Baraka, which followed 20 Baltimore-raised 12-year-old boys through their time at an experimental boarding school in Kenya, Ewing and Grady’s style of documentary filmmaking has developed beautifully, moving toward a more refined aesthetic. Fortunately, their latest work is just as compelling as Baraka, and they’ve reached the point where they can effectively loosen up the structure while keeping all of their elements in check.

With the presidential election fast approaching, the release of Detropia serves as a reminder of America’s shortcomings and how far the nation has drifted from its former glory. Although the film offers no concrete or quick solutions (it would be unreasonable to expect them), it does offer a steady and thorough exploration of the city’s dire financial situation, suggesting that other American cities might ultimately suffer the same fate. Throughout Detropia, you might find yourself unable to look away, and in the end you might feel a little guilty for gawking, a little powerless in the face of economic turmoil. But sometimes watching can be empowering, depending on how you proceed once the credits have rolled.

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