Detropia residents wear gas masksThe city of Detroit is all too familiar with a thing called “ruin porn.”

This can include anything from tourists to journalists who scrutinize with a kind of morbid fascination the urban decay and abandonment that mark vast stretches of the Motor City.

It’s sensationalistic but not necessarily mean-spirited: Detroit is a train-wreck that that one can’t look away from. The drama and the questions run too deep. How did this happen?

Since one of the makers of “Detropia,” Heidi Ewing, making her fourth film with Rachel Grady, is a native daughter, “Detropia” is not ruin porn. Rather it’s a tone poem, an impressionistic mosaic that gives you a sense of the city and a pandemic of pessimism that constantly challenges those who elect to stay.

It’s an amazing film, not just for its refusal to bow to negativity but its celebration of those hearty souls who stick it out, people who actually choose to remain in Detroit,

With a cinematic GPS that brings them to just the right people, the two filmmakers uncover a resilient owner of a blues bar, a dogged auto union rep, a fiercely intelligent video blogger, a group of artists and an opera impresario, all of whom still see Detroit as a question rather than an answer.

Detropia views Detroit's nearly deserted streetsThere are docs where you learn things. Then there are docs like “Detropia” that sweep you up in a mood and create a state of mind in the viewer.

Oh, you may learn something too — like what it’s like to scrape by in Detroit. Or that the No. 1 U.S. export to China is scrap metal or that China can built an answer to the Chevy Volt for $28,000 instead of the $40,000 price tag that comes with the Volt.

Mostly though you marvel at the people and their rugged individualism, the very thing that once made the city so great in manufacturing, car building, music producing and entrepreneurial enterprises.

The camera does record the ruined buildings and those being torn down. But soon someone is walking down those streets with purpose. Someone is buying a coffee or sharing a drink with buddies. People still live here!

There’s an agenda to this movie, of course. How can you not take in these images without realizing that all this is the fallout, the collateral damage if you will, of globalization, outsourcing, growing corporate power and a shrinking middle class.

Detropia shows Detroit skylineBut the film’s too smart to fall into easy agit-prop. Your primary emotional is admiration. Admiration for Crystal Star, the blogger who roams deserted buildings taping what’s there now and wondering about who and what went before. Or Charles, the retired teacher who runs the last blues bar in Detroit.

You don’t know quite what to make of the artists who see the cheap digs and spectacular rot as a breeding ground for art but you think that, well, maybe they’re on to something. And what about that Swiss tourist who can’t get enough of the scene?

The film was actually shot prior to the Occupy Wall Street movement but you might wrongly imagine that the idea came from watching this film. It didn’t; the film was just prescient.

The documentary has opened in New York and is rolling out around the country for the rest of the year. Best to check the “Detropia” film’s website for dates and locations.

Opened: September 7, 2012 New York (Loki Films)
Production companies: Loki Films presents in association with Ford Foundation/Justfilms and ITVS an Impact Partners and Vital Projects production
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Producers: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Craig Atkinson
Executive producer: Dan Cogan, David Menschel
Directors of photography: Tony Hardman, Craig Atkinson
Music: Dial.81
Editor: Enot Sidi
No rating, 90 minutes


  1. http://tinyurl.com/emptball11515 says

    Just where did you actually acquire the recommendations to create ““Detropia documentary
    film takes poetic survey of Detroit”? Thanks ,Drew

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      I’m not clear what you mean by recommendations. What you’re referring to is a headline in WordPress that sums up the review so it’s really a matter of opinion. I found the documentary poetic. You didn’t?