At its worst, cinema verite is aimless pretense masquerading as artistic intent. At its best, it is Detropia, a documentary that adds soul to statistics, going inside the implosion of a once-proud city using a sprawling, haunting approach. That isn’t to say that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady don’t infuse the proper factual context for their mournful postmortem. Neither transcendent nor particularly revelatory, the film simply adds depth of understanding, giving a street-level perspective that Brian Williams has no time for during his nightly economic recap.
As is appropriate for a film on Rock City, Detropia begins with music. It’s not Motown funk or rock riffs, but the tragic strains of opera that play out over scenes of young people scavenging a dilapidated building. Detroit is a carcass, with residents turning into vultures by force, not by choice. The shaky-cam style used inside a ramshackle building exudes the aura of a horror movie, likely not by accident. Less horror movie and more straight horrible is a scene in which autoworkers are informed about wage cuts. It’s one thing to read about plant closings and another to watch union men collapsing under the weight of a new reality.
One of the more intriguing discussions surrounds the redistribution of population. Not only is Detroit hemorrhaging citizens, but specific parts of the city are bleeding more than others. The proposal to relocate and concentrate remaining residents is met with understandable confusion and fury, even if the rationale behind it is well-intended. Again, these moments aren’t shocking. Nothing that happens in Detropia is shocking, really. It just humanizes economic issues with questions like the one a civically-minded blues club owner asks, “Do we have to sell our soul?”
And really, that’s what this documentary concerns itself with. When a city synonymous with soul loses it, there should be witnesses. And that’s what Detropia does: pays witness. That said, it does fall prey to typical verite problems: The difference between tender lingering and naval-gazing boredom is a gray zone, and sometimes the film slides from the former to the latter. And the creepy, atmospheric, ambient score doesn’t help make it feel like things are propelling forward. To be sure, all of this was by choice, a conscious decision to create a specific feeling. But it’s a feeling we “get” so immediately that it’s practically overkill by the muted conclusion.
Still, movies like this are important. They serve not only as contextualizing historical records but as a way to see beyond sound bites and statistics that pepper us through ever-increasing outlets. Detropia is not making an argument, even if there is a certain concerted effort to demonstrate the often overlooked impact of art on economy. The subsection of the country that feels movies exist for distraction and meager entertainment, who say “I just want to shut my brain off and watch,” will find Detropia to be their worst nightmare. But those compelled to dig beyond headlines will unearth a nice bit of paydirt.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.