Did documentary 'Detropia' get it wrong?
A group of 25 Detroit non-profit/civic professionals screened a preview of the new documentary "Detroipia" and, according to Curbed Detroit, they all hated it. Were the filmmakers unfair to Detroit or are Detroiters being unfair to the filmmakers?
The Detroit narrative, of recent years, is the stuff of (minor) Dickensian clichés about best and worst times.
Depending who’s asked, the Detroit story is either one of glorious rebirth led by corporate and philanthropic investment in the downtown core or a story of bankruptcy and despair. Both narratives are true to a point, but which one most accurately reflects the daily reality for everyday Detroiters?
When filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, of “Jesus Camp” fame, decided to tell the Detroit story in the documentary "Detropia" they apparently found the negative outweighed the positive.
According to Curbed Detroit, that didn’t sit well with a small group of professional Detroit boosters who recently screened the film.
One person that attended explained that part of the film was made with money from the Ford Foundation, which had some initial goal of using the film to promote policy change in Detroit. An organization called Active Voice put together the screening for people from big organizations like the DEGC and Kresge at the Opera House to ask them how the film could support their causes. Viewers are said to have universally panned the film, asking what the point was, and why the portrait of Detroit was so one-sided? It would seem the whole thing is a very negative portrait of the city that does not make an effort to show progress (something you might imagine people from DEGC and Kresge, would want to see) . Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (co-owners of Loki Films, based in New York) are said to have gotten very defensive. The audience thought that the film was about "everything wrong with Detroit," to which they responded that they had wanted to tell the "phoenix rising" story of Detroit, but that this is what resulted from their efforts.
Now, even the most hard-bitten pessimist must acknowledge that it’s all too easy to inaccurately sensationalize the "Detroit is dying" story.
Detroitblogger John once wrote about a semi-retired blues musician who hunts and cooks raccoon—something of a rural delicacy. In hands of NBC’s Chris Hansen, this charming human-interest story became a tale of poverty and suffering. Oh my God Detroiters are reduced to eating raccoon to survive! Well, not really.
If Detropia goes full Chris Hansen, then the film’s critics probably have a point. It would also be especially disappointing given Ewing and Grady’s unwillingness to take cheap shots at radical evangelicals in Jesus Camp.
On the other hand, if the film’s initial goal is to “promote policy change in Detroit,” then one has to assume the film might be a tad critical of status quo policy.
And even the most sunny optimist must acknowledge that Detroit’s dying public schools, failed bus system, vast stretches of desolate land and systemic poverty are symptoms of failed and ongoing policies that affect Detroiters on a daily basis. Detroit is more than what Yertle the Turtle wishes to see from the Guardian Building’s 22nd floor, or an office tower in Troy.
At the end of the day, no one should judge Detropia on the false choice of positive and negative narratives, but on whether or not the filmmakers’ perspective on the Motor City is honest and authentic.