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Detropia - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

I had a layover at the Detroit airport about a year and a half ago. My flight was delayed due to winter weather and I had to sleep overnight on the floor there. It was the closest I've ever come to visiting that particular city. That night, I thought nothing about the rather unique economic plight of the area; the airport, actually, is surprisingly nice. I certainly wasn't the only one. In retrospect, the resultant selling out of all nearby hotel rooms must have been a very small, brief bright spot in what has seemed like a very swift downward spiral for that city in recent years.

Only New Orleans, an American city with its own very unique history, has had a population decline more dramatic than that of Detroit -- and New Orleans faced a cataclysmic natural disaster. Detroit? Good old fashioned depression: In 1950, it had a population of 1.8 million. According to Detropia, the documentary about the current state of this city and the challenges it faces, in 1920 it was the fastest growing city in the country. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, its population is now slightly over 700,000 -- less than half of what it was at its peak, and although the population has been steadily declining there since 1950, there was a 25% decline in the past decade alone. It now has a population less than that of San Francisco, a city with roughly one third the land area.

What to do with all that extra space in Detroit? Detropia shows a city grappling with this question. The mayor proposes relocating the residents closer to the core of the city to re-purpose mostly abandoned areas and revitalize presumably salvageable areas. Will the city offer any financial benefit for such a proposition? Nope: the city is broke. Citizens come to town halls quite understandably enraged by this idea. Turn abandoned neighborhoods into urban farms? How much of a traditionally manufacturing community is going to understand that, let alone go for it?

Everyone is grasping at straws. Detroit has so much urban decay that it is attracting tourists just to see that. Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady present something more like a collage of a city in crisis than any truly straightforward portrait. The end result offers much more of a tone of desperation than an actual story. It's peppered with statistics that still fit better into the collage than into any kind of comprehensive analysis. If there's any message Detropia seems to have, it's that your city might be next, and if not, then it's probably in line.

It's a pretty bleak picture. There are very brief moments of hope. Right after informing us that the 2010 Census revealed Detroit's overall population to have dipped to a record low, it notes a 59% increase in "young people" moving into downtown. How do they define "young people"? I wondered. How many were there to begin with? This seems a little bit like spin.

Much of it is a bit heartbreaking. Detroit is riddled with abandoned buildings, some of them truly a shame in their lack of use. One is a huge, beautiful old concrete building with columns and a giant interior atrium. Its only use now, apparently, is for the guy in front of this camera to practice is opera scales. In context, it's a little haunting.

One wonders how the filmmakers went about finding what few subjects they found for this film. One is a guy who owns a blues lounge located just blocks from where one of the car manufacturers once had a giant manufacturing plant. He serves as an example of a long-standing local business and how they are affected by the breakdown of the local economy. He attends local car shows, and marvels at how a Chinese car company is under-selling Chevrolet with a similar car -- by roughing 50%. Back at his bar, he has a conversation with a woman who notes that the only way America can compete is by lowering their standard of living, to bring it closer to that of the Chinese. "I don't think the American people are going to like that," he says. Indeed not.

We see clips of closed-up auto part shops. One has the A, R and T fallen off the side of the building, with an I added: UTOPIA. Much of Detropia is a depiction of such sad ironies. You just can't help but feel bad for this city. But what are the solutions? None are presented by city leaders, nor by this movie, really. It seems only to want to say, "This is happening." A woman at a town hall meeting stands at a microphone, noting that she catches a bus two or three hours early just so she can be sure to be to work on time, and if they cut bus services she can't make it to her minimum-wage job. But what is a city to do when it has no money to pay for services? No one in that town's City Hall has an enviable job.

People adapt. Well, as the Mayor says, people who miraculously reach a certain level of financial means adapt by bailing on Detroit and moving to greener pastures. Still, one can only hope Detroit will find a way to pull through. Detropia has an undercurrent of such hope. It doesn't seem very confident about it, but the hope is there.

As soon as this movie ended, a guy in the row behind me said, "Well, that was a colossal downer." No, this is not a particularly uplifting movie. But as "colossal downers" go, it's fairly well done.

A city struggles to keep from ruin in DETROPIA.

Overall: B+

Playing at Northwest Film Forum through October 25.
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