From thousands of pictures on Flickr to coffee table books like The Ruins of Detroit and Detroit Disassembled, images of Detroit's decay surround us. It's easy to understand why we find them so fascinating --- more than any other city, Detroit in the mid-twentieth century embodied the unprecedented manufacturing might of the United States and the plausibility of the upward mobility story central to American identity. Looking at photographs of the city's abandoned and crumbling schools and factories and houses (Detroit has lost more than half its peak population) makes that America, so near in collective memory, feel impossibly distant. But the obvious downside to the sea of Detroit-in-ruins images is that they can lead you to forget that the city is still home to 700,000 people, many of whom are fighting to save what remains. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia, which opened this weekend to block-long lines at the IFC Center, tells the human side of Detroit's story.
Detropia weaves the lives of a variety of Detroiters --- a lounge owner, a union president, a video blogger --- together with the life of the entire city, as services to depleted areas get cut and the mayor tries to implement a plan to consolidate people in the remaining pockets of dense population. Eschewing narration, the filmmakers let residents speak for themselves: some voices are inarticulate or even delusional (several people blame a referent-less "They" for wrecking the city, as though Detroit's problems could be laid at the feet of a single malevolent agent), while others are acutely perceptive and endearingly optimistic. All, however, are defiant, crackling with a refusal to give up on the city, and in the Q-and-A afterwards, Ewing and Grady emphasized the fighting spirit of everyone they spoke with.
The movie cannot offer solutions, of course, but it does give grounds for hope: the effects of Obama's rescue of the auto industry are documented in the increased hiring at the GM plant, and the film touches on the Detroit-is-the-new-Brooklyn story that's been getting some play as a result of the rise in college-educated young people moving to downtown Detroit. And Ewing and Grady, along with their tremendously talented cinematographers, emphasize the city's resilience not merely through its people, but through some remarkable images: a shot of a sheared wall of a building waving in the breeze with skyscraper lights in the background is probably the most simultaneously haunting and inspiring thing we've seen in a movie this year.