Tuesday, 17 April 2012

DETROPIA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Hot Docs 2012 Must-See #2

Detropia (2012) dir. Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Having been conceived in Detroit, but at the last minute, born in Winnipeg due to Mom's sentimental desire to have me expunged in Canada, I always felt like Motor City should rightfully have been my city.

I've got to say that Detropia, a harrowing feature-length documentary exploration of this great town's decline is ultra-depressing, but surprisingly, it hasn't changed my mind about wanting to have been born there anyway. In fact, after seeing this movie, I wish I had been born there even more.

From Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, those wily, probing and provocative Oscar-nominated helmers of Jesus Camp and 12th & Delaware, this picture is not only a fascinating portrait of urban blight, but amidst the crime, poverty and decay, there's still a pulse and heartbeat of something very cool. One of the film's subjects, a young artist who enters long-abandoned, crumbling buildings in the core of the city to experience and photograph her adventures, manages to capture, at least for me, what's still residing amidst the crumbling ruins of what was once great.


It's a city full of ectoplasmic activity of days gone by and I feel an odd connection to this sentiment - not only because it's the place of my conception, but that in its own way Detroit reminds me - at least on a cosmetic level of what happened to my eventual place of birth. When I first visited Detroit in the early 90s, it already looked like a blasted-out war zone. This is not unlike what happened in Winnipeg around the same time. A combination of corrupt city officials tied to owners of heritage buildings who wanted to tear them down to build parking lots and an overwhelming "White-Flight" (less-than-charitable Winnipeggers began referring to the core as an urban Indian Reservation), my magical winter city became a ghost town of abandoned, boarded-up buildings.

Detropia takes us on a fascinating tour. We meet a union organizer for an auto parts plant who desperately tries to negotiate a deal that will stop the factory from moving its base of operations to Mexico. Unemployment and the resulting poverty is touched upon unflinchingly. City council meetings with the beleaguered Mayor trying to find ways of revitalizing the city, maintaining services and yet staving off bankruptcy - as well as a disorganized, emotional and packed-to-the-rafters Town Hall Meeting are all the stuff of compelling drama.

Even more harrowing is the detail surrounding government bailouts of big business and how none of those dollars are passed on to the workers - many of whom are faced with massive pay-cuts and threats of business relocation and/or out and out closure. One woman, making minimum wage and refusing to accept handouts describes how the axing of bus routes leaves her with no way to get to her job. People working two or three jobs just to stay afloat are the norm.

While this might be the story of Detroit, it's also the story of a great nation descending to levels of a Third World Country and a New World Order intent upon keeping it that way - to widen the gap between rich and poor even further in order to maintain power and wealth.

One of the few bright spots is the story of an artist who is, for the first time in his life able to own his own home. I have to admit that this is a tad inspiring - the idea of creative people owning property and being surrounded by plenty of inspiration amidst the urban blight seems to be a tiny repast of retribution for those who are the first to be looked down upon by virtually everyone on both sides of the fence.

And then, there is the Detroit Opera House - still alive, still making beautiful music - surrounded by a wasteland of poverty, seemingly filled to capacity, and yet displaying the grotesque irony that the only patrons are those who can afford to be there. We watch, agog, as hundreds of the elite sit there adorned in finery that could probably feed all the city's homeless, their pig-snouted heads of privilege nodding solemnly in agreement when they're delivered solemn speeches from some clown in tails who whines about the financial crises facing the opera.

And finally, much as I extol the ghostly virtues of this blight, I'm ultimately sickened by what this terrific picture presents. One sequence involves an auto show filled to overflowing with American autos, but standing amidst the toils of the red, white and blue is a Chinese car - offering everything the American autos do and then some.

The American dealers can't adequately explain why the Chinese car costs so much less, but it's not lost on us as we watch the movie and everything surrounding this sequence - China's exploitative sickle and hammer capitalism is a choice many of these American auto dealers welcome. They'd be happiest if Americans succumbed to the savagery facing China's working men and women on American soil, but if not, they're happy to exploit the poor in other countries to stay rich and powerful.

When a city like Detroit goes down, America is not far behind.

And the rest of the world will feel the shattering effects of a nation ruled by oligarchies - gangster thugs dolled up beneath the veneer of respectability.

"Detropia" is playing at the Hot Docs 2012 Film Festival on Sat, May 5 5:45 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Visit the Hot Docs website to get tickets HERE.