Given time, Detroit will tell its own story of an industrial giant all but destroyed by poverty, white flight and global competition, but also of a city with rekindled hopes of reemerging from shadows of its former self.
That's precisely how Detropia – a documentary of the triumph, tragedy and near decimation of the Motor City – came about over a one-year timeframe. Acclaimed directors Heidi Ewing (a Detroit-area native) and Rachel Grady arrived with crew in tow and no preconceived notions – only confidence that a narrative would evolve on its own.
Ewing and Grady are perhaps best known for their Oscar-nominated film Jesus Camp about a summer camp where children as young as six are trained to be soldiers for the religious right. Their filmography also includes The Boys of Baraka and 12th & Delaware.
Detropia quickly became less about Detroit itself and more about the city representing the nation's economic decline and struggles to keep pace with global manufacturing, Ewing explains.
Newly Detroit-based artists are featured in the film wearing gas masks identical to those that have become symbolic of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Detroit artists were protesting corporate greed about six months before the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
"Only now is the country ready to listen," Ewing says. "It just is the national story."
Producers and crew moved into apartments in the Brush Park area in September 2010 and spent the next year letting the city dictate the direction of the film. Almost all filming for Detropia took place within a half-mile or less of the city's center.
Ewing said it made the most sense for a film about Detroit to be made by those who grew up in or around it. Her father owned and operated National Set Screw Corp. in Plymouth before retiring in recent years.
She says her year spent in Detroit reawakened the sights, smells and sounds of industry she recalls from her childhood at her father's nuts and bolts plant.
"I feel a kinship with industry and I really didn't realize that," Ewing says.
Detropia was Royal Oak native Craig Atkinson's first job as a producer for Ewing's and Grady's Loki Films. About 700 hours of film were shot, only 90 minutes of which made the final cut. Atkinson says there was a danger of trying to "do too many things and tell too many stories" in capturing Detroit.
"But at the same time you want to tell the right story," he explains. "Detroit deserves a 12-part series."
Audience reaction to Detropia screenings across the country, including in Boston, Cleveland and New York City, has predominately been relatability over sympathy, Ewing says, as no community has gone untouched by the national economic downturn.
"They were like, 'That's us, too.'" | RDW