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.
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.
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.
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?