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At Long Last, Detropia Comes Home

This post was authored bu Daniel Feinglos.

Last night saw the highly anticipated film Detropia premiere at Wayne State's Community Arts Theater. Although Detroit is a little late to this party, given that the documentary has been screened pretty much everywhere else in the world, Detroit still managed to get in the very last of the advance screenings before the general release date today. As WDET's general manager noted before the film started, it was the first "full" showing in Detroit, referring to an abbreviated one earlier this year that may not have gotten the friendliest reception.

Enthusiasm for the WDET-organized screening was apparent from the fact that tickets sold out (insofar as free shows can sell out) within 10 minutes of being made available online. As this is a film that has already caused people to travel across the country to visit places featured in it, this sort of drawing power should not be a huge surprise.


The show took place at the same venue that Techonomy was held in, which led to a slight signage contrast at the entrance. Techonomy probably also did not have a composer selling vinyl copies of its soundtrack in the lobby. With the Community Arts auditorium's elaborate pipe organ dominating the stage, the general admission seats filled up by the 7pm start time, although there were at least half a dozen empty rows in the back of the auditorium when the lights went down. [Clarifictaion: WDET has informed us that the seats in the last rows were never distributed at the request of the filmmakers]

Although the film is promoted as showing how Detroit is a sort of distillation or preview of what happens to other American cities, watching it is likely a very different experience for Detroiters. Many recent reviews have described the film's Detroit as looking like something out of a dystopian scifi film, and it's true that many scenes would not look out of place in The Road or the Hunger Games. (The ride in the elevator to see Mayor Bing and the Detroit Works project is nothing if not Half-Life 2's Citadel.) The praise for Detropia's visuals is definitely justified, but it does sometimes feel as though there is a gap between the striking film work and the daily reality of life in the city.

Before the screening, WDET's general manager Mikel Ellcessor pointed out that Detroit was often a "binary sort of town", in which the media is either telling a positive story or a negative story, and that Detropia did not fit into that. This was basically borne out by the film: in terms of positive versus negative, Detropia does avoid coming out exclusively on one side or the other despite being generally kind of bleak. However, the film fell into a different kind of division: during the post-film Q+A, filmmaker Heidi Ewing noted that the film was "a reminder of the multiple Detroits that co-exist but aren't interacting very much" and suggested that it would be better if they did. Yet the movie was distinctly one-sided in many of its discussions: when Detropia raises the subject of urban agriculture, several of the film's man-in-the-street subjects dismiss it out of hand. In the same way, the film avoids things like renovated houses in Corktown and the Villages, new construction in Midtown, or workers relocating downtown. Generally, the film depicts a city divided between the government and corporations of Detroit on one side, and the people who live (and demonstrate) in the city on the other. In many ways, Detropia feels like Occupy Detroit, the movie.

When questions began, the auditorium didn't empty out much, as film participants Crystal Starr, George McGregor, Tommy Stephens, and Steve Coy came up on stage with the filmmakers. General applause broke out when video blogger Starr, in comparing the screening event with a Detroit Works community engagement session in the film, noted that "what's happening now is more effective than what happened at that meeting". At one point, co-moderator Craig Fahle called Coy out on his assertion during the film that experimentation is possible in Detroit because "if we fail we haven't really fallen anywhere." A year or two after having originally said the line, Coy (part of the distinctively costumed Hygenic Dress League) seemed somewhat embarrassed about it, and explained that having lived in the city for awhile, he now recognized that there was "a risk to that failure". Contrary to what we had heard from the earlier abbreviated screening, the filmmakers were on good terms with the Ford Foundation (despite some not-entirely-positive things expressed about the auto industry during the film) and at least personally felt optimistic about what Detroiters could accomplish in their city.

In sum, Detropia is a very good depiction of some of the multiple Detroits that its filmmakers focused on—but there are nevertheless several other Detroits that they didn't. Accordingly, Detropia is not great at providing a comprehensive picture of what is going on in the city, but is a good film to watch if you want an impressively put-together and evocative look at what it is to walk through quite a bit of it. And possibly a pitch for the Morouns to bring opera to the train station. Detropia opens today at the Ren Cen, the Main Art in Royal Oak, and the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.