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New Detroit Documentary For Euro TV: Not For Americans

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In this first report from our intrepid intern, Daniel, we asked him to sit through a movie and give us the scoop on how Detroit performed. Here's what he had to say.

It seems everyone's got something to say about Detroit. On Monday, the College for Creative Studies hosted the premiere of Detroit: Hope for the Motor City, a new documentary produced for German and French television. The film, which aims to put a human face on the city's cliched ruins, provides an introduction for Europeans who want to know more about built and social conditions in the D. First off, this film is good. Second, it is important to remember its target audience— it's not for Americans unfamiliar with the Detroit urban narrative, but for Europeans who may be unfamiliar with the American urban narrative. This means that in addition to depicting Detroit's Ruins (TM), the film goes into city's majority-black demographics, the crack epidemic, and other fruits of 20th century urban history that to most Americans are likely old hat. This is most readily apparent when subtitles pop up for almost every African-American in the film; although this is for the benefit of Europeans who may not be familiar with the full range of American accents, it looks a little fishy to Americans who aren't aware of why it's happening. (This came up during the premiere.)
It is also important to remember what this film is not— it is not about real estate, or the broader back-to-the-city narrative, or even downtown— it is a bottom-up story about artists and small-scale interpersonal networks and how they function in the face of tremendous negative social pressures amidst a neglected built environment.

The documentary has a 55 minute run time. Monday night was apparently the for-serious premiere; only 20 people had seen it previously. The film itself was only finished two weeks ago. Its Berlin-based creator, Alice Agneskirchner, told a respectably filled CCS auditorium that she created the documentary for a 5-part series that takes a look at what happens to selected regions when industrialization moves on. Most of the other sites are old mines or industrial sites; Detroit is the only city in the bunch. Agneskirchner acknowledged that the Detroit film is in fact much more about the people than the ruins-- and most of the film's people actually turned out to be in the audience.

“If you've never heard yourself,” she told her subjects, “you'll be wondering how you sound.”

Here's what Detroit sounds like in a European documentary:

Although the film offers the standard visuals of classic cars and ruined buildings, it doesn't linger on them as much as it might. At the old Packard plant, for example, the film intercuts promotional footage from Packard itself with present-day footage, bouncing back and forth between industrious, photogenic workers in the factory's prime and a long-retired former worker slowly walking around the site with his daughter. Similarly, when we get to Michigan Central Station, the sequence does open with the empty building looming over high grass, but quickly cuts to shots of visitors mugging for photos in front of the razor wire. From young hipsters' description of the city as a “big kids' playground” to an aged patriarch narrating his neighborhood's decline to the nameless rubberneckers taking pictures at the train station, this is a story of people trying to figure out how to relate to a changed city. This is not an outsider gawking at the ruined Rome of the Midwest— this is very much a community looking at itself across a gap of years.

The closest the film gets to stereotypical shots of ruins is a brief sequence of aerial views of the skyline, whose stillness achieves the impression of a sterile, museum city. Aside from out-of-towners engaged in urban agriculture, the film doesn't have too much to say about the back-to-the-city movement or non-artistic white-collar revitalization. With its discussion of crack and general urban disinvestment, much of this narrative could have come out of the Detroit of the 80s. Outside of one cultural event, all the activity that the documentary focuses on is an attempt to understand or deal with the immediate ramifications of the end of the industrial city— which, of course, is what the film is explicitly about. This film shows continuity in Detroit— that this is not a place of befores and afters, but where people have traveled a long and eventful line to get where they are today. This is not ruin porn— this is meta ruin porn. And that is a good thing.

· Detroit: Hope For the Motor City [Modern Ruins]