Detroit has never had a particularly positive cinematic history, from union mayhem in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar to old racists in Gran Torino to punchlines in the films of John Landis and National Lampoon. The portrayal in Detropia, a documentary city tone poem, isn’t much more flattering. When documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) began filming, the bailout of the automotive industry, on which the city almost entirely relies, had yet to wreak profits. The images Ewing and Grady give us err towards the post-apocalyptic: a dilapidated music hall with a piano resting on its side, depopulated downtown vistas, dogs roaming the streets. The inclusion of productions at the Detroit Opera House seem an incongruous vision of luxury, but even they are tied into the flailing car industry. Soon they’re rewriting the lyrics to The Mikado so as to deliver jokey smackdowns to greedy bankers.
Detropia doesn’t delve too deeply into the problem or offer any solutions. Not that documentaries have to do perform such tasks, but the film does spend enough time in its chosen metropolis to balance the bleak with the vaguely hopeful. On the latter side, you have the denizens themselves, and the filmmakers glom onto a handful of them to guide us through the timeline: a video blogger who visits decaying buildings, a schoolteacher-turned-bar-owner who has had to double as his own cook. Like all Detroiters, he’s warily skeptical and eagle-eyed: When he visits a car expo, he’s the one who angrily points out that the newfangled Detroit electric cars are more expensive than their Shanghai counterparts. So much for the city’s big solution.
The city’s unexpected mini-resurgence is darkly comic: Detroit has gotten so bad that its infamy has attracted tourists and new residents. Swedes inform a nonplussed barista that they’re visiting because they’ve heard about all the cool decay. Young artists who couldn’t afford efficiencies anywhere else are flocking to a city where they can nab roomy lofts with top-of-the-line appliances. Detropia is wisely suspect of treating this as a happy ending: Capitalism may sometimes fix itself, but the remedy, if it comes, is lacking, and the destruction and misery left during the wait is of a high cost.