Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on Capturing Detroit

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Detroit-area native Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady filmed Detropia with the hopes that the rest of the United States would recognize a bit of themselves in the Motor City — unemployment, the decline of manufacturing and municipalities, and the new industries and social movements rising from the rubble.

Watch Coming to Independent Lens: Sundance Award Winner Detropia on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Since they wrapped up the documentary, Detroit has endured even more strife. The city recently hired a bankruptcy lawyer because it was so badly managed.

“The financial crisis that has made Detroit one of the largest cities ever to face mandatory state oversight was decades in the making, a trail of missteps, of trimming too little, too late, of hoping that deep-rooted structural problems would turn out to be cyclical downturns that might melt away as the economy picked up,” according to The New York Times. What’s more, the city kept records on flash cards and had few visible policemen, even though the public safety department made up half the city’s budget.

A lone figure walks past a boarded up Detroit storefront.

A lone figure walks past a boarded up Detroit storefront.

Detroit continues to lose residents, though the declines were not as steep between 2011 and 2012 as in previous years. The population hovers just above 700,000. Here’s what drove Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady to capture the essence of this dwindling Detroit:

What impact do you hope this film will have?
We hope that the rest of America can see that they may have more in common with Detroit than they thought. Across the country municipalities are going bankrupt. Citizens are losing their jobs and are untrained for the new generation of jobs and industries that are replacing them. Collectively as a society we need to embrace that the old systems and model we based our economy on has radically changed.

What led you to make this film?
Heidi is from Detroit and from a manufacturing family so the place is near and dear to her. Rachel thought that Detroit was an excellent place to get an accurate gauge of the potential fate of our cities; where over 80% of Americans live.

A grand piano lies on its side in a ruined ballroom.

An upturned piano in a ruined ballroom suggest the bygone days of Detroit.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Telling the “story” of a city, especially a place with such a rich and symbolic past, is a very esoteric idea to get one’s head around. The creative process was extremely challenging, but also gratifying.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Detroiters are tough, but we focused on characters and a population who haven’t had a lot of opportunity to be heard so, so they were more willing to take a risk on us.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We have over 90 minutes of “DVD extras.” There are hundreds of important stories in Detroit. One scene that we tried hard to include but ultimately couldn’t was of a man named Butch driving around in a truck selling vegetables (when we were filming there was no national grocery store chain within the city of Detroit) that was very beautiful and soulful.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
We filmed a young man named Chubb’s who had had been recently ambushed in his own home by armed intruders. They had shot up the house and his 6-year old daughter had been home, terrifying her. The police never showed up. There are less then 1,500 cops protecting 700,000 people. It’s citizens live in a lawless place. That is wrong in the richest country in the world.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The response has been wonderful. It is the right moment for this conversation. The people featured in the film have embraced it and are representing the film at various screenings.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Filming people and their stories is an honor. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to keep doing it for a long time.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We love public television. It respects the filmmaker’s vision, does not impose editorial control, and is available and free to all.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Heidi stumbled upon the scrappers one night while driving by. She saw a fire burning in the distance and her and her crew went to check it out. She found a group of young men who were literally picking apart an old Cadillac Factory to sell as scrap metal to survive. Detroit was being disassembled before her eyes.

Watch Detropia Video Extra: The Scavengers’ Story on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
The story of Detroit is a work in progress. There will never be an “end” to this story

What are some of your favorite films?
Vertigo, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Streetwise, There Will be Blood

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
The most important thing is to listen.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

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  • hkrieger
  • Len Laviolette

    This Film was amazing for me to watch tonight.
    I grew up in the Detroit area and had several businesses and factories there till 1986.
    I return this month to bury my last parent there and say goodbye to the city that I use to call home.
    This film tugged on my heartstrings in so many ways.
    Until today films like: Searching for Sugar man and Grand Torino were my best memories of the streets of Detroit.
    I hope other cities in this country can learn from the great message this film.
    Len L

  • anonited edu et

    Well i watched the pbs detroit suffuring economic decline never been too detroit but my heart is inclined to pray and do somthing revlouionary as a son of the one an true living god itz time too anwer this nation with my origin o so high a calling in christ jesus weird i caught that esipode cause now meca is now time to rise to a new age in tecnovineganic i wish to get more into that word but could cause prerevlo. But as the building consor the whole city shall be blessed 2010 when the jobs cloplas i had ingenins ideas from houston tx the city who put a man on the moon with tecnology haha the world has seen nothing yet iam a genius in strange romanintic and creative ways truz me amarica wait for the harvvest … Ask me anything

  • Robin Bundy

    What a waste..88 minutes to say what could have been better said in a two minute commercial. The destruction of the middle class will destroy our country’s first world ststus. Your documentary shows how little you understand or care about the truth of Detroit.

  • Sheri

    I wish i could share this film with everybody in America. I feel this is just the beginning of the end for America. If an important city like Detroit can fall, then all major cities in America are at risk to fail. I know that someday Jesus is to return and then the end of this planet will come soon after. I did not know what the end days would be like. I believe we are seeing the beginning days of the end days. We might be better off if we return to basics: farming and raising our own animals for food. Without jobs to provide money to buy the basics shelter, food and clothing, a real working farm will provide these essentials.

  • John Thomas

    I liked the way Detropia showed the African-American perspective on Detroit’s problems. The auto union president and the nightclub owner were especially well spoken and insightful. I did not like the way that new ideas for reinventing the city were ridiculed or not shown at all. Bringing back the same old auto industry is not enough to bring Detroit back. The city must embrace new industries, alternative energy, and sustainable practices if the people are going to come back and be healthy.

  • TedMichaelMorgan1

    The visual elegance of the film stuns me. I lived in New Orleans for 12 years.
    Much of the story there resembles this story, though Detroit seems sadder. I deeply admire this work. I am going to order the DVD on payday.

  • Dedria Humphries

    As a Detroiter planning to return to home, I was told to view Detropia. It was depressing and overwhelming and inspiring. Several moments in the video struck me: when the union president was asked in a telephone call, “do we have vision?” The union president was taken aback, and had no answer. That is exactly what has/is happening in Detroit: it’s the vision thing. Leadership needs a vision.

    And when the video blogger Crystal Starr fixes a cup of coffee for t he guys from Switzerland, and one says his country is clean, and neat and he thought it would be interesting to see Detroit in its’ decay. She said in an understatement, that’s slightly offensive. That was a lot offensive. Detroit is still the home of 700,000 people. I had a moment like that a few years ago at a writers’ conference in one of the Detroit suburbs and I was not nearly so nice as Ms. Starr, believe me.

    Still, it’s very sad.

    The inspiring part is as the artist said: you can try and afford to fail in Detroit. That means we can also try and succeed.

  • scott lindsey

    good movie

  • John Bird

    I grew up in the Detroit suburbs and have followed the fortunes of the Motor City since the 1950s. I was familiar with many of the themes presented in the film. I thought the footage of the owner of the Raven Lounge was poignant and telling, and I also liked the scene where the UAW leader listens to two young Asian women promote the Chinese electric car company, BYD (“Build Your Dream”) at the International Auto Show. Then he walks over to the GM display and asks the sales reps why the Chevy Volt costs twice as much as the BYD model. So who’s building their dream?

  • Thelma McKay Szlyk Gee

    Has anyone thought of encouraging homesteaders in Detroit like Baltimore did in the 1970s and 1980s? Or encouraging refugees to move in? It’s true that they will need jobs, but they will also create jobs and small businesses.