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Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing on Detropia


In Detropia, the new documentary from directing partners Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, a gleaming sun rises over a handsome stretch of metal and glass, yet much of the landscape it kisses is neglected, overgrown, and decaying. This is the dichotomous portrait of Detroit delivered by the filmmakers, whose breakthrough film, Jesus Camp, likely rattled your core. With similar attention paid to stirring emotional heft, Grady and Ewing’s latest uncovers the splendor and squalor of a very American metropolis, whose all-time-low state of disrepair is punctuated by glimmers of its former — and, perhaps, future — glory. Painstakingly researching their 143-square-mile subject and its outspoken star residents (including a prophetic video blogger and a benevolent club owner), the Oscar-nominated directors spent more than a year embedded in Motor City, and the fruit of their labor is a picturesque hymn to a fallen empire, whose tale is a cautionary one for every community in our cash-strapped era.

And yet, Detropia is a film of unlikely possibility, its epidemic of laid-off auto workers matched with a growing population of venturesome bohemians, and its critique of a certain self-defeating American entitlement coinciding with an enduringly American sense of hope. Based in New York City, Grady and Ewing recently took some time to discuss with Filmmaker their new film, which, in all its chronicling of U.S. tradition, urban decline, creative sustainability, and devastating loss, represents the best and worst of us.

Detropia directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing

Filmmaker: I’m going to ask a bit about your technique before I get into the meat of the film’s subject matter. There are a number of beautiful shots in the movie that establish atmosphere, panning across empty lots and sometimes cowering under stormy, foreboding skies. What’s the overall process of gathering that footage like? Are you just constantly filming and collecting whatever you can, or are you waiting around with specific shots in mind?

Rachel Grady: Well, often, one thing inspires something else. It’s a combination, really. We were there for a really long time, so, of course, in between spending time with our subjects and figuring out what to do next, we’re just basically interacting with the environment. And the environment there is very specific, and very intense. We’ll film something, and it will make us think of something else. It could even be content that reminds us or teaches of what we need to go find. So I think it’s a combination. Sometimes we see something, and remember we need to go back and get it. And of course we consider when something is going to be the most beautiful, and when it’s going to be lit properly, but also there’s a lot of on-the-fly stuff that happens. And in the film, you see a mix of both.

Filmmaker: There’s also the frequent juxtaposition of nature and urban decay within your aesthetic. In the scene in which a few locals make fun of urban farming options for Detroit, there’s a great shot looking out from a porch, where the frame is wreathed in leaves, yet there’s a graffiti-covered, vacant lot in the distance. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of the film’s look?

Grady: That is just the reality of Detroit. It’s been emptying out for 30 years, so as people left, and people didn’t move back in, nature kind of took over where these people left. So that is the subtext of everything in Detroit. The question of “Where are the people?” and the fact of nature sort of coming back to reclaim itself. And I think that’s where the idea of urban farming has come from. Something that’s interesting to think about, though, and that came out of conversations we had with longtime Detroiters, is that some of the uncertainty and suspicion you get from folks like the guys on the porch is rooted in residents’ parents and grandparents coming from the South. So talk of going back to an agrarian society reminds them of their family members who were farmers, and came to the north as part of the Great Migration — to work in industry. So, I think there’s something in the backs of their heads saying, “No, we don’t want to be farmers again. We’ve left that behind and moved on from that.” So, definitely, on a social and psychological level, that’s going on, and physically, you can’t escape it.

Filmmaker: The film has a lot of warm lighting, and overall, a very hot palette, which offers a kind of personality you might not expect. It’s painterly, with a lot of saturated golds and greens. Can you discuss that look and how you feel it relates to the material?

Grady: Well, the green is interesting and surprising. We noticed that everything did kind of have a green palette, especially in the summer and spring because that’s when everything sort of comes to life. And I think that’s because there’s a lot of nature that’s kind of crept back into the city — trees, grass.  It’s sort of become an urban forest, in some ways. And I think the goldness and the rosiness comes from the fact that Detroit is on a huge body of water, and it just has some incredibly gorgeous light that’s surprising for a town that’s known as being the heart of industry. We enjoyed that interplay and that surprise. Detroit is full of surprises, and there are things that don’t exactly make sense, and that beautiful, rosy look was one of them. I’d like to add that our editor [Enat Sidi] is incredible, and I believe that if she weren’t an editor, she’d be a painter. So I want to give her some credit for drawing that look out, but that was the vibe that we got immediately when we started filming, and we went with it.

Filmmaker: And is any of the color coming from filters or post-production?

Grady: No. I mean, of course, we did a color correct, but, no. That’s out of the camera.

Filmmaker: There’s a line in the film in which someone says, “We’re having a financial crisis and our politicians are having an election.” How out of touch do you think our leaders are with what’s happening in places like Detroit?

Heidi Ewing: You know, here’s the thing: I don’t know who’s going to be president in November — I think it’ll be Obama — but I am extremely fearful that whoever is president is not going to not be as interested in what’s going on in Detroit and places like Detroit after the election. I mean, everyone continues to visit Michigan, and Obama was there a few times when we were shooting, and Mitt Romney shows up there all the time. It’s become this sort of football: “The bailout worked! The bailout didn’t work! Industry’s back! No, it’s not!” I think that, right now, the leaders are seemingly in touch with the importance of manufacturing in economy — that a service economy does not lead to greatness, and just expanding our healthcare and education and college system and restaurants is not going to cut it. But I wonder — I worry what’s going to happen after November. Because these are very, very difficult problems to solve, and there would need to be some kind of collective agreement in this country — that we’re going to support certain industries until they’re off the ground. It’s called industrial policy, which is a dirty word for a lot of Republicans. I don’t know if it’s so much leaders being out of touch as they don’t know how to solve these issues. They’re daunted. So it’s very uncomfortable for political leaders to wax on ad nauseum about issues they can’t solve. It’s going to take a collective agreement between both parties for any of the things presented in the film to change.

Filmmaker: And, Heidi, you are from Detroit…

Ewing: That’s right. I’m from the Detroit area. My parents were part of the hundreds of thousands of people who moved to the suburbs after the riots. I grew up five miles outside of the city, but we went into the city a lot. The real personal connection to the story for me is not my proximity to the city growing up, but the fact that I’m the daughter of a manufacturer. So I grew up with a front-row seat to the rise of Japan in the 1980s, and seeing a lot of my father’s colleagues going out of business, and watching my father having to stop making small pieces for the auto industry because that was all being outsourced. I watched him try to innovate and create unique parts that couldn’t be replicated. He had to keep designing and changing what he was producing in order to stay afloat. And it worked — the business is still open. So I’ve always been interested in the value of making tactile things. I grew up visiting factories. So I have more of a kinship with that storyline than the city of Detroit overall.

Filmmaker: Being a native, what was the hardest thing to see while you were making the film?

Ewing: Seeing my grandma’s old block. A lot more of the houses are gone on my grandma’s old block. She was a lifer, my grandma. And she refused to leave, and she loved her home, and she loved her neighbors. It was hard to see what had happened to her block and the houses that I visited as a kid. That was hard.

Filmmaker: Jesus Camp, your breakthrough film, seems a very far cry from Detropia in just about every way. What determines what will make a worthwhile subject for you, and how do you know if something is going to be a good fit?

Grady: Well, there is a commonality in our films, which is that they’re all very anchored in domestic issues in the United States. But besides that, we’re really kind of all over the map. I’d say we have to be very, very curious. These films take two, three, four years [to make], and you don’t want to run out of steam in terms of putting your all into it. They take a lot of energy, so they need to have very hearty and rich subject matter. There have to be a lot of things things that you want to discover about it, and there has to be the challenge to sort of bring new life to something. So there are a lot of things that we kind of brainstorm with each other, and they’re just not going to be able to cut it if they sound kind of fun or funny, but they’re just one-note, or two-note. Taking on religion or politics or a city that has a 100-year legacy, you have subject matter that’s going to have serious mileage.

Filmmaker: Have there ever been any subjects you felt you were unfit to document or do justice?

Grady: I think there are films that different people are best suited to make, for sure. For example, I would love to make a film about China; I’m obsessed with China and everything about it. But I think, as a non-Chinese speaker, I wouldn’t be able to ever do it justice. People who make films in languages they don’t speak have been successfully done before. For instance, My Country, My Country, by our friend Laura Poitras, was incredibly emotional and nuanced. But I think that’s rare, and I think that a huge part of filmmaking, or storytelling in general, are the words people choose to use. It’s very much about language — language equals emotion. So I think that if you can’t understand every word exactly as a person expresses it, you’re at major disadvantage.

Filmmaker: I really like the suffix of the title, and how it can be read as being indicative of a very dystopian tale, while also taken as a nod to the possibility of a utopia, and a new hope. I’m assuming you see it that way, too?

Grady: Absolutely. We wanted to leave it up to an audience. I mean, [Detroit] was absolutely part of the middle-class mythos that America has sort of outsourced to the entire world, and that’s the litmus test of the middle class now, worldwide. So it was a utopia. It was the American dream. So the question is, is it a dystopia now? Or is it a utopia that just needs to be revived. We loved that it’s just totally up to the viewer and it can mean a lot of things.

Filmmaker: Heidi, you had mentioned at one of Detropia‘s New York screenings that you and Rachel stayed away from addressing Detroit’s schools because the crippled education system was its own can of worms, even worthy of its own documentary. Was there ever a consideration to cover that topic as an addendum to this film?

Ewing: Well, you know, we have 80 minutes of DVD extras — all cut scenes and things that could have made the film. So there are so many addendums. Frankly, I do think the subtext of the film is education. Fifty percent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate. When you drop that into a movie, it sort of throws everyone into the same pot, and we focused on, basically, the black middle class — a people who did have options and an education. So, just to drop that number in there seemed to be sending a different message about our own subjects. It was a really sticky wicket. I think that an entire film should be dedicated to the subpar educational system that is the Detroit public schools. And actually, I believe 60 Minutes did an entire hour on it while we were making the film. I was glad to see that. And films like Waiting for Superman focus solely on education and they’re really helpful. For us, you just can’t throw everything in. We had to, at some point, decide to just stick with a few issues, and it was a tough decision, but the film was already reaching, and sprawling, and floating. To throw in education and just do five or 10 minutes just seemed like the wrong thing to do.

Filmmaker: Do you believe that other American areas will end up like Detroit?

Grady: I think that there’s a risk of other places ending up with parts of Detroit’s problem. I think what makes Detroit unique is that it has such a complex role in American history, and it’s been slammed with probably every challenge that an American city can deal with. I can’t think of one that it doesn’t deal with. So I think that there are many, many other cities that will get hit with a lot of the Detroit issues, but probably not all of them. I definitely think that the country has a lot to learn and to think about from Detroit, and that it’s definitely relevant to urban centers, not just in this country, but in other industrial, western countries.

Filmmaker: One of the topics Detropia covers is the comparison of the Chinese auto industry to the U.S. auto industry, and how China’s commercial shadow is looming over America. You point out that the Chinese may be more capable of overcoming certain societal issues and limitations because they’re generally more willing to do without and think outside of the individual. Americans, meanwhile, tend to have more of an aversion to change. On the whole, do you think Americans can be their own worst enemies in times of crisis?

Grady: I think that Americans have all the incredible perks, and also all of the problems, of being a young country. I think that we can be incredibly innovative and passionate and experimental, and we’ve been able to grow very, very quickly in the past couple hundred years because of that. Because we’re just kids compared to the rest of the world. But I also think that we suffer because of that. We can act sometimes like spoiled teenagers. So I think that it’s a blessing, but also, like you said, we can be our own worst enemy. But I think that, when pressed, we can act collectively, and we can look and act in our own best interests. But obviously it’d be better if we jumped to that before everything was incredibly hard to fix. So, as filmmakers, we’re hoping Detropia is just a little bit of a wake-up call.

Filmmaker: I loved how art is really the glimmer of possibility in the film, whether it be the artists who are able to find opportunities in Detroit, or the opera house that serves as a running motif. Do you consider your film to be part of the artistic remedy that could potentially help the city? I would imagine it’s already made some sort of an impact.

Ewing: Well, we’re just opening it now and we won’t show it in Detroit until Sept. 14, but I’ve got to tell you — we were showing it for six months on the film festival circuit, and at the end of every single screening, I’d get at least five people walking up to me, most of them in their 20s, saying that they want to move to Detroit. Meanwhile, the person sitting next to them, who’s like, 60, is horrified, saying, “Why would you ever move to Detroit?” It’s a completely different, generational thing, with people basically seeing different movies. You’ve got college graduates who can’t get a job, who are ready for an adventure, and they want to have a purpose in their lives. And in moving to Detroit — there’s a lot of need there, there’s a lot you can do, there’s opportunity, it’s affordable. It’s cheap as hell, really. I think people in their 20s, artists especially, see a completely different city than people who are older. So that’s been really interesting, and I think it speaks to a generation that’s faced with economic insecurity, and if they can’t make money and they’re looking for purpose, Detroit is wide open. So I hope that, yeah, the film speaks to more people like that who’d be willing to take the plunge and check Detroit out. And I do think that without the arts, you just don’t have a city.

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