Detropia, the fascinating new documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who most recently collaborated on Jesus Camp) is a kind of horror film, but instead of people being menaced by monsters or psychopaths, the "killer" is urban neglect. And like the prototypical movie-world zombie, it tends to move in slow motion and it feeds on the living.
The film is a critical examination of Detroit, the most rapidly shrinking metropolis in the United States. How did the Motor City become a husk of its former self, a place where one may find a single occupied home in two blocks? Where massive factories and once-grand hotels and train stations now resemble bombed-out ruins in Beirut or Damascus?
Detropia is short on concrete answers, which is simultaneously its strength and weakness. Ewing and Grady offer facts about the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing sector, and the film's overall argument is guided by a few dominant voices — Detroit-based urbanism blogger Crystal Starr; small-business owner Tommy Stevens; and George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22. But unlike, say, a Michael Moore take on similar material, Detropia is much more experiential and elegiac, aiming to display both the pockets of life and joy and tradition still animating Motown, while at the same time moving us slowly through abandoned streets and decaying structures, to impress upon us just how unfathomably wrong it feels to see an American city in this state.
Detropia plays Oct. 19, 20 and 23 at The Belcourt; after the 7 p.m. show Tuesday, Vanderbilt professor of urban sociology Richard Lloyd and Vanderbilt professor of management and sociology Bruce Barry will discuss the film. Click here for more information. Read the full review here.