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"I Am Detroit, and So Can You," Says New Film

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This is the second film review from our intrepid intern, Daniel. We asked him to sit through a screening of "After the Factory" last Thursday at the DIA and give us the scoop on how Detroit performed. Here's what he had to say.

The new Detroit Lives! documentary, After the Factory, had its premiere last Thursday night in the DIA's Detroit Film Theatre. Billed as a comparison between Detroit and Poland's number-one showcase of post-industrial decline, the city of Lodz, the film examines how two places over four thousand miles apart are dealing with an extremely similar set of challenges. (Spoiler alert: Lodz will not be getting a Whole Foods in the foreseeable future.) In exploring the spaces and people of both Detroit and Lodz (intuitively pronounced “Woodge”), the film is relatively light on gloom, instead bouncing between frustration, earnestness, ideas, and optimism on two continents.

The first impression that many had of the film was the enormous crowd outside. For some, it was the only impression: the show sold out even as long lines of would-be theatergoers waited for tickets in the lobby and cars idled for blocks down John R waiting to get into the parking lot.

Once it began, the film wasted little time getting to its biggest point— that Detroit's post-industrial experience is not unique. It accomplishes this with minimal clumsy exposition (showing, not telling, as it were) by setting up the more or less parallel urban narratives and then hopping back and forth between Detroit and Lodz with little warning. Without the subtitles and the accents, you would often not be able to tell which city you were looking at. Pop quiz— there's a young woman with a ponytail and earbuds spraypainting a mural on an old factory. Where is she? You don't know. And that's the point. This is particularly confusing during one of the interviews which takes place in a park, when the Polish subject is wearing a DETROIT LIVES! shirt. I still am not sure which continent that park is on.

In the same way, just as these cities share a common industrial past, the film contends that they share a common post-industrial future. Detroit, Lodz, Buffalo, Leipzig— all these one-time manufacturing centers face the the same kind of problems: an eroding tax base, national stigma, buildings beset by a plague of dots, what have you. The film suggests that all of these places are moving on together, although the details of where they’re going remain a little sketchy. Regardless, the future the film advertises is a more bottom-up, grassroots place— an Etsy instead of the past’s Sears and Roebuck. While this may be a slightly awkward message in a moment when an uptick in auto sales has led to a palpable feeling of well-being in a still auto-focused Mitten, the film and post-screening panel's recommendations about dependence on heavy industry seemed pretty clear. During the panel, author Grace Lee Boggs (who appeared prominently in the film) explained that the city simply wouldn't be going back to the days of top-down “Chrysler plants that employed 17,000 people”, because while those places may have underpinned the success of one decade, their all-or-nothing nature meant that they undermined the success of the ones that came afterward. The move forward, Boggs said, would be more about “community”. This people-centric future was also referenced by the film's director, Philip Lauri, who said that he tried to document projects that ordinary citizens could manage. “These aren't people with millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “The point of this was to show solutions, that they're easy, that it's really just [that] you make a decision, and you act accordingly.” This is, of course, a very optimistic way of looking at things. Yet there are certainly reasons to be so. For example, the film's booster-y interview subjects weren't just from one part of society: there were people from government, business, art, education, the black and white communities, people with more economic than social capital and people for whom it's the other way around. Since the panelists emphasized that the world after the factory may look very much like the one before it, the right metaphor may be that Detroit revitalization is a carriage pulled by an awful lot of horses.

Nevertheless, the film glosses over some substantial differences between Lodz and Detroit: to take one small example, the film showed Lodz's streetcars casually rolling back and forth, as if to taunt the City That Rail Forgot . During the panel after the film, the moderator (WDET's Mikel Ellcessor) acknowledged the optimistic undercurrent, noting that a desire to have a positive image of Detroit can sometimes lead to “less photogenic” lives being left out. This assessment was spot-on: the Detroit this film depicted was less a city living with canceled rail, budget cuts, and the looming specter of a state takeover, and more somewhere with a generalized malaise of abandonment, economic decay, and the poor sentiments of its neighbors. Additionally, despite the pervasive optimism, the film doesn't offer the kind of concrete, ready-made solutions that some might be looking for. A telling moment: when someone in the audience asked why the city makes it so hard to start a business, Ellcessor said that there unfortunately wasn't anyone in the house that night who could really speak to the issue. Nevertheless, Lauri was very aware of this: he warned the audience at the beginning that the film wasn't a “self-help or a how-to guide for cities.”, but rather that it examines the cities' progress through the lens of the people making it happen. By this measure, the film seems to accomplish what it sets out to do: showing that post-industrial cities are similar, with similar problems that likely have similarly workable solutions. This last part is hammered home just before the credits, when the film rolls out a “where are they now” listing of many of its subjects along with updates on how their projects worked out.

Despite glossing over differences and many of the cities' seemingly insurmountable difficulties, in the end, the piece may not offer spelled-out solutions, but it does offer ideas for how people in a lot of places can find them. Most importantly, it shows that Detroit is not alone— and will be meeting Lodz and Cleveland for drinks after work.

· After the Factory Film Trailer [Vimeo]
· What a Night! Premiere at DFT a Smashing Success [Detroit Lives!]