Imported From Paris: The Young Filmmaker Who Loves Detroit

So many young people in Detroit have Kickstarter campaigns going to raise money for their projects that it is difficult to write about just one.

But I have found one person to write about. Her Kickstarter campaign to finance her unusual Detroit-centric documentary is in its final days.

Her name is Nora Mandray. She is 26. She has lived in Detroit for more than a year, working on an interactive, online documentary about the DIY spirit in Detroit in the early years of the 21st Century.

Mandray is a French filmmaker/journalist from Paris who came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship three years ago and earned a master's degree in fine arts from the UCLA film school. I met her early in her stay here, and I've followed her adventures, and I am amazed at the way she, and her co-producer, Helene Bienvenu, embedded themselves in the city, went out and met Detroiters and figured out a story to tell.

In many ways, Mandray embodies the youthful spirit and creativity that has energized Detroit, even as the city hemorrhages population and struggles to avoid financial calamity. She just happens to be from France. 

Mandray and Bienevenu came to Detroit to document the city's urban farming movement. In meeting Detroiters, though, they identified what they felt were more pressing issues: food justice, racial justice and digital justice, among others.

"Helene and I have lived in many cities around the world, but we never saw anything like this before," Mandray said. "We believe the DIY initiatives that exist in Detroit today are the seed of the city of tomorrow."

They immediately started a bilingual web site, DETROITJETAIME.COM, "Detroit, Je t'aime" being French for "Detroit, I love you." They use the web site to report their encounters and record their thoughts about the city, and it attracted attention in both France and Detroit. 

And they soon began planning their project, also titled "DETROITJETAIME.COM." As they describe it, the film will tell three interrelated stories about sharing resources and community-building in the post-industrial era, focusing on a group of female mechanics, an urban farmer and a hacker.

The film will seek to inspire action, so an interactive "DIY Toolbox" will be available to viewers to create their own DIY projects, from basic bike repairs to LED light projects. The film will be released online in January.

Bienvenu is a foreign correspondent based in Hungary for the Parisian newspaper La Croix, but she spent three months in Detroit and plans to return.

Mandray is a slight, enthusiastic woman who speaks virtually perfect English, as well as Polish. She and Bienvenu attended the world renowned "Sciences Po," the Institut d'études politiques de Paris, a Harvard-like, highly selective university known for training France's political elite. In Paris, she lived in a tiny studio apartment with a view out the window of a wall. Her neighborhood, St.-Germain-des-Pres, is anchored by a 6th-Century abbey and was the post-World War II home of the existentialist movement and the Cafe de Flore, where Jean-Paul Sartre held court.

In Detroit, she lives in Woodbridge, the pre-auto age neighborhood west of Wayne State, in a six-bedroom home with several roommates on a tree-shaded street near a streetlight that blinks on and off. The Woodbridge Pub is nearby.

After arriving in Detroit, she quickly realized the city was not the so-called "blank canvas," but a complicated place with a long history and a lot of interesting residents.

"The energy that palpable in Detroit today, and what makes it so inspiring and 'cool,'" she said, "comes precisely from these people who were brave and ballsy enough to stay during the tough years." 

She wrote on her blog early in her stay: "Detroit is a painting with many colors, dark and hopeful at the same time. You're free to add any color you'd like to that painting, but you better take a good look before you do."

She said young people in Paris and Detroit share a desire for change, but that young Detroiters seem more inclined to wear different hats, to volunteer, start small organizations or provide outlets for their inner creativity through music or sports. 

"That's what I see as a very DIY way of life," she said.

Mandray has also noticed that even among young Detroiters, however mobilized for change, life takes on an aspect of the lives of their parents and grandparents when it comes to diversity.

"I've too rarely witnessed blacks, whites Latinos and Arabs mixing together, no matter what the age," she said. "The suburban kids, who are mostly white, almost always self-segregate themselves from the Detroiters, who are mostly black."

Mandray is engaged to a film school graduate from Okemos, Jason Kohl, and she dreams in English these days after three years in the U.S. "I've become pretty Americanized at this point," she said. 

"I'm happy and grateful that was able to come to the U.S. I really didn't care about  American culture before I came here. I will totally promote 'the U S of A' when I get back to Europe. The can-do attitude and the strong sense of community that I found in Detroit, especially, have been really inspiring experiences for me."

The Kickstarter campaign for "DETROITJETAIME.COM" ends Monday. As of Thursday at 12:01 a.m., 297 backers had pledged $14,132 of the $25,000 goal, or 56 percent.

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