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They’re shutting down futures.
This is what one Detroit resident and video blogger says about the economic decimation and collapse of the auto manufacturing industry in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new documentary Detropia. At one point in history, Detroit was the American city that represented the dreams and hopes of the American working class. It now stands as a ghost city – a landfill of lost dreams collapsing under demolition teams, abandoned with the automobile manufacturers that have forsaken its residents, and lying in piles of debris and overgrown weeds that have taken over a landscape that has been economically evacuated.
Detropia uses beautiful camerawork and lighting to capture the city’s state of post-industrial decay. In sweeping shots of abandoned streets and buildings, the lifeless industrial skyline, and the remnants of train stations, factories, apartments and houses collapsing under the weight of economic despair, the film is emotionally laden with sad beauty, yet it still manages to resist the exploitive trend of Ruin Porn, a practice that uses art to exploit the real-life tragedies of people who have lost their jobs and their homes to economic hard times. Detropia is a eulogy for a lost America and a touching portrait of its remains, but it is not a romanticized vision. Told mostly through local Detroit residents who have spent their lives in the city, Detropia is a documentary of the people and by the people. It is a film about the real lives and struggles of those who still occupy the city. Though the cinematography is at times breathtakingly beautiful, the film never falters from the reality of the city and the people who live in it (and the ghosts who have left it).
The trailer for the film is deceiving as it lends us to believe that the film focuses more on artists in the community than the workers who have lost their jobs and their hopes or the people who barely continue to hang onto the economic threads of their lives. But artists actually play a very small role in the film. When they do appear, they are clearly outsiders who, despite their good intentions, are clearly distanced from the tragedy of Detroit’s economic history. In one scene, a Swedish tourist talks to the video blogger about wanting to photograph the “fascinating decay” of the city, and she tells him, “That could be offensive.” It is offensive and one of the reasons it is very hard to make a film or art about Detroit without stepping into the dirty field of Ruin Porn.
For the most part, Detropia avoids Ruin Porn by showing us the city through the eyes and voices of lifetime residents (a union leader, a school teacher/bar owner, the video blogger/café worker) combined with images of the landscape itself. Though obviously filmed with the artistic vision of the filmmakers, the landscape of Detroit – gutted buildings, abandoned factories, sprawling fields of grass taking over land where buildings once stood – is mostly seen through the eyes of its residents as they take the filmmakers on a personal tour of their city. Images of destruction, decay, and urban collapse become intimate and emotional as they are delivered to us by those who have personally witnessed the economic destruction of their home. They have felt the consequences firsthand, have survived the out-sourcing of jobs and the breaking of labor unions, yet they continue to keep up a fight and hold onto their homes and their city.
The emotional and political weight of the film isn’t given to us through didactic voiceover telling us how to feel, rather we experience it through personal stories combined with hauntingly beautiful and devastating images of Detroit’s economically ravaged landscape. In one scene, we watch a house demolished before our very eyes. A backhoe
digs into the roof and brings the structure down into a pile of rubble while the worker talks about the staggering number of houses they demolish daily. As the house is torn town, the roof ripped off and the walls dug out and dumped into a pile, what is unspoken yet still heard are the voices of the people who lived in the house or the fact that one of the only remaining jobs in the city is demolishing abandoned houses – taking down the standing monuments of the failed American dream, the ghosts left behind in the great evacuation of the city. This scene cuts to another image of destruction. One building is brought to the ground while a towering brick apartment building stands like a dying soldier wobbling on his last legs in the war against the working class. One resident sits behind a window in a great wall of empty windows.
In parts of the documentary, we see the city through the passenger window of a school teacher’s American built car as he drives the filmmakers past the old Cadillac factory or a factory that once built airplanes for WWII. He talks about how the city once boomed with manufacturing, how there seemed to be no end of possibility for the factories and the workers who were paid union wages to work in them. The school teacher also owns a night club across from one of the factories, and his business has been brought nearly to a halt by factory closures, job losses and mass migrations from the city. In one scene, a man sings the blues in the club. His voice is like the very cry of the nation. He gets down on his knees and belts out his song. In his blues, we hear not defeat but a kind of war cry for survival amidst the economic devastation in which these people scramble for footing. His song comes from the guts of history. This scene and the one of the man in the apartment window capture so much of the sentiment of this film – stories of people holding onto life even when possibilities are collapsing all around them.
Much of the city’s story is told by a UAW union leader. He reminisces on the booming days of Detroit, a time when the automobile was the ultimate symbol of American progress and represented the great hope of the working class, a time when the Fordist model of capitalism seemed to provide the promise that hard work does pay by paying wages that allowed the working class to buy the very fruits of their labor. But those dreams died with the closure of automobile factories and the outsourcing of jobs. In the film, we witness desperate union negotiations for jobs at an axel factory where the company tells the workers they either cut their wages or the factory will be closed. Workers talk about losing medical and dental care. They can’t buy glasses because there are no benefits to offset the expense, and their wages have been slashed. One worker talks about how the offers to cut their wages are economically and psychologically demoralizing. He questions how they can face themselves or their jobs under such dire economic circumstances. But then, there is no choice, no alternative. As the union leader says at one point in the film, “Capitalism – it’s a great system when it works. The problem is it preys on the weak.” Indeed, capitalism stopped working in this country when people stopped working, and the city of Detroit is a testament to that fact.
During the boom of WWII manufacturing and the rise of the automobile industry, Detroit represented the American Dream. It offered the promise that hard work and union wages could give everyone the life they wished for. Detroit was the epicenter of industrial success, the city that made America the country touted as the Manufacturing Capital of the World. But now, the ruins of Detroit represent the failure of those dreams to survive. Rather than being the Manufacturing Capital of the world, Detroit is a totem to the failure of the American Dream under the ever-spreading plague of global capital. Detropia shows how the forces of the global economy have destroyed the working class in America as jobs have been shipped overseas and across the border, abandoning the city of Detroit and the country itself.
Mayor Bing makes an appearance and talks about forced evacuations and urban renewal by turning Detroit into a farming town. We learn that city services – bus lines and electric power – are being cut in certain areas of the city. A woman testifies in front of Bing. She says she waits two hours to take the bus to her minimum wage job, and if he cuts off the bus, he cuts off her lifeline. The whole idea of forced relocation shows just how dire things are in this country. On the one hand, what does it mean when people are being forced to leave the homes they’ve occupied their entire life? On the other hand, the city has no money to provide them with services or with compensation for relocating. Does it mean it’s time to revolt, to take over the power plants and transportation system? The whole idea of turning an industrial city into farmland is ludicrous. There are few places for the unemployed union welder in fields of vegetables. Two residents sit on the porch of their home and look across the expanse of fields of weeds growing over the remnants of Detroit’s industrial past, and they say, “A tomato is supposed to solve this?” Seriously, when we are facing economic times that are so devastating that people are being forced to leave their homes, certainly we have reached the end of the line.
Speaking of the end of the line, the film also provides stunning images of the gutted remains of the train station. Its towering walls crumble with decay and echo with its absolute state of abandonment. The empty station is the ultimate symbol of the flight of jobs and the halting of the economy. The trains of industry and manufacturing have come to a stop, and opportunities of economic movement have been cut off with the trains.
That doesn’t mean that the global economy has stopped. It’s just left Detroit and much of America in a state of economic despair. In one scene in the film, a group of men rifle through collapsing buildings for metal and copper to be shipped off to China. They scavenge the remains of the businesses and homes that have been destroyed by global capital to sell their gutted parts to the very forces that caused their destruction. It’s an image of a kind of economic cannibalism, a post-apocalyptic survival-of-the fittest scenario, where the only way to live is off the remnants of the dead.
A city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and which has lost over 50% of its population since the height of its manufacturing success, Detroit is a devastating icon of the ravaging economic destruction left in the wake of post-industrial, post-NAFTA America. Detropia offers an intimate portrait of Detroit that is a locally rooted vision of the city, but its view also expands to the global as it provides a portrait of one specific city that ultimately represents the overall economic collapse of America.
All of the scenes in this movie are deeply personal portraits. As devastating as the economic environment of Detroit is, the filmmaking in Detropia is so beautiful that the resilience of the city’s remaining residents comes through in the beauty of the film. Though filmed in the epicenter of Ruin Porn, Detropia provides emotional poignancy, not exploitation. The gorgeous lighting and color of the film show the life that is left in the city – the heart that remains beating in the ruins and is unwilling to give up. Yes, the film is about the failure of the American Dream, but it also reminds us that a dream is just a dream. The people in this film are real people, and they still have plenty of fight left in them. Perhaps Detropia will help spread that fighting spirit to the rest of the country. It is possible for new dreams to come from fallen dreams. Giving up is not the answer, and the Detroit residents in this film make that very clear.
(On a side note, interestingly Ford Foundation was a major sponsor of the film. And speaking of Ford Motor Company, for another glimpse of Post-Industrial Detroit, I recommend Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino which I reviewed for Counterpunch when the film was first released in August 2009.)
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.