Have you ever seen JESUS CAMP? That is one powerful documentary. There is no narration or explicative text, very little direct interviews too. All you got is direct, unadulterated footage from a Bible Camp and the choice to be freaked out or inspired. I was interested in DETROPIA before knowing JESUS CAMP'S directed Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were behind it. I love economic documentaries and think that when they are well made, they always leave you more aware of what's going on around you. DETROPIA is not different, although it's not the most cohesive piece of cinema ever conceived and that it's undeniably flawed. Also, it exposes the reality of the current economic hardship rather than its causes. So you know, get ready to be depressed, not angry.
DETROPIA is greater than the sum of its parts, but not by much. Because if you start breaking it down point by point, it doesn't make much sense. For example, there is about ten, maybe fifteen minutes of opera footage. It doesn't bring anything to the movie. If it's supposed to be a metaphor, it doesn't work. If it was meant to be heightening the desired mood, it's way too obtrusive to be successful. Also, there is this desire to give a complete portrait of the city's woes and picks several subject that don't complement each other. The automobile workers and the bar owner are two complementary pieces, but the young, struggling artists, the video blogger and the other subjects of DETROPIA don't really add to the meaning of the movie. Their shared struggle (the "downsizing" of the city) is not thoroughly explained or focused upon. I still don't really understand it.
The cause of all these hardships to the people of Detroit is what Noam Chomsky called "the hollowing of the economy's core." Basically, we don't manufacture things anymore. It's a way to deprive unions of bargaining power and to use cheap, equally competent labor to maximize profit. What it also does is that it creates a generation of dependent people, who don't know or care about building anything. I thought DETROPIA illustrated that translation to a not-so-great new era, very well. It shows the automobile workers as belonging to another era, as archaic people that didn't adapt to whatever they should've adapted to. This illustrated the hypocrisy of the situation they're caught in, because what they do is still highly in demand. It's just that the boss doesn't want to pay somebody local to do it, because it hurts the year-end bonus.
So, the sad parts are well-developed. It's depressing, sure. But that's what this documentary is about. The downfall of a city that lived off the manufacturing industry. It that regards, it alluded to other mind-bending issues without going into greater depth about it. For example, why all the opera and only a quick word about Detroit shutting down bus services and street lights? I mean, shutting down street lights!!! That's third world right there. Why didn't it have a segment about mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who hurt his city as much as the next suit-wearing bandit? His name is not even mentioned. Why finishing on a high note? It seems like its a bit narrow minded optimism, considering the film spent over an hour depicting how bad Detroit had become. The performance artists are supposed to incarnate hope, but they moved to Detroit BECAUSE of its profound brokenness. It was Detroit of Baltimore, they said.
What Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady obviously tried to do here is to tell the story of Detroit's downfall the same way they told the story of Bible Camps. I thought this was a mistake, because the problem is more layered and complex. It's wrapped up in the economic/politic issues plaguing the United States right now. It deserved a more thorough portrait. There is beauty to DETROPIA, but there is an infuriating amount of shortcuts. That was obviously a let down. There are better economic documentaries out there and probably better accounts of Detroit's woes. Truth to be told, I didn't learn much in DETROPIA and it's somewhat a cardinal sin of documentaries.