What Can Detroit Teach the Nation? Heidi Ewing on <i>Detropia</i>

"Tommy doesn'tto keep the place open -- he has a healthy pension, and he lives in a really nice neighborhood in Detroit. And yet he does, because he thinks Detroita black-owned blues bar."
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"All of us have to care, to really focus on our cities, because that's where most people live, and they're crumbling." Heidi Ewing, who directed "Detropia" with Rachel Grady, sees her film as an illustrative call to action.

Photo courtesy of Loki Films

With a jobless rate reportedly hovering around 30 percent (some say as high as 50 percent), a median home price of $54,000 in 2011, a local government in danger of bankruptcy, and city services barely surviving dramatic cuts -- including basic necessities like streetlights and firefighters -- it's no wonder that Detroit's population has shrunk by more than 25 percent in the last decade. In a city that once showed boundless promise, with the automobile manufacturing industry dominating a prosperous economy for decades and offering a solid middle-class existence for so many, it's equally shocking that nearly half the current adult population is functionally illiterate, and that 1/3 of the city's schools closed in 2010, with another 50 percent of those left expected to shutter by 2014.

These numbers are bleak, and they only represent a fraction of the devastating statistics provided to press covering Detropia, the lyrical and intimate portrait of a city in crisis directed by the powerhouse documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

In the film, which premiered at Sundance and opens in New York on Friday, we meet Detroiters old and new who are still fascinated and hopeful about their city, and who candidly reflect on why they have chosen to make it their home despite the declining outlook. And the package holding the message does not feel like a news report; instead the images are artful, finding the beauty in the sublime, the poetry in the abandonment, and the hope in the recollections.

We recently got the chance to talk with ball-of-energy Heidi Ewing about the mythical impetus for the film, the pride and tenacity she found in current-day Motor City, and the collective action she believes we all need to take to keep our cities alive and thriving. She, like her film, is a powerful force.

Kristin McCracken: What inspired you to tell this story?

Heidi Ewing: I was born and raised four miles from Detroit; my father and his brothers produced parts for the auto industry. My parents left [the city proper] after the riots, but my Grandma stayed. She was a lifer; she lived in NW Detroit until the bitter end.

All my family still lives there, and whenever I'd come back from visiting, I'd talk about how bad things were getting. So in October of 2009, we said, "Let's just go to Detroit for a few days." We filmed for three days, we met a few people, and we followed them around. It was completely amorphous, and we were just blown away by the people and what they had to say -- the wisdom, this kind of pissed-off, tough, what-the-hell-do-you-want, chip-on-the-shoulder Detroit, you know? It was not warm and fuzzy. At all. [smiles] They were like, "We've got a lot of things to say. Are you all finally ready to hear them? We've been talking for 25 years... "

KMc: So you were there for three days, and then what?

Heidi Ewing: We came back, made a trailer, and started to show it around. We raised the money very quickly -- turned out there were other people also very interested in Detroit. PBS came on board, and Ford Foundation, and next thing you knew, we were moving to Detroit. We rented two apartments in downtown Detroit, got two cars, and basically stayed for a year.

We didn't know what we were going to do. We had chosen a city to make a movie about -- not a school in a city, or a dude in a city -- [so] we had to talk to a city, ask a city questions. It became a very organic, long, many-rabbit-holes, never-stop-casting sort of film. There are certain things we captured just because we were living there.

We knew [the film] had to be a chorus, it had to be a poem, it had to be a butterfly, going from place to place. You can't just hang a city on one person, or one family, I don't think. So it was a totally different kind of filmmaking -- it felt experimental, kind of artsy, kind of crazy.

KMc: Tell me about how you found some of your characters -- Crystal is a young video blogger

Heidi Ewing: Crystal was working in this cafe; across the street from the opera house. I went to get a coffee, and she was showing a video to her friends of this long abandoned old jewelry store she had broken into. I heard her talking to her friends, and she was dynamic and funny, and had a lot of pizzazz. We started talking... It was so nice to have a young, black Detroiter, born and raised -- not a newcomer -- who looks at the city with wonder. That's unusual.

KMc: And Tommy Stephens, a bar owner who still runs his business on the east side, really kind of anchors the film.

[A contact] told me: "You all should go to this bar called The Raven, on the east side of Detroit. It's the only business on the block. The guy is still open, and still playing the blues. You wouldn't believe it -- they've got retired cops sitting outside in their cars watching the vehicles of the patrons so they don't get stolen." We walked into this amazing throwback place, and [the owner] Tommy had so many things to say, and he knew the city so well. He told us, "The plant just up the street? It's gonna come back. They're making this new electric car... " All his hopes were tied up in that.

Tommy doesn't have to keep the place open -- he has a healthy pension, and he lives in a really nice neighborhood in Detroit. And yet he does, because he thinks Detroit needs a black-owned blues bar. There is nothing on that block, but yet, every Friday and every Saturday, he pays for the band, whether people come or not. He has such spirit, and optimism, and knowledge, and wisdom.

KMc: His wide breadth of knowledge and his curiosity just shined through.

Heidi Ewing:Because he's the Everyman... but he's smarter than the Everyman. We just knew, when we met him, that he would probably anchor the movie, but we didn't know to what extent. He was really on this journey -- he wanted to go to the auto show, to this and that, and we just went along with him. I think he was bemused by us. [smiles]

KMc: What did you find the morale to be in Detroit? Do they see themselves as a microcosm of the U.S., or, as someone says in the film, a wake-up call to the rest of the country?

Heidi Ewing: I think Detroiters are generally pretty defensive. Maybe they are little bit tired of being picked on by the media, or analyzed under a microscope. I think that they would say,"We have a lot to say!" They welcome their message being heard, but I think they are sick and tired of a lack of services, in general. They are tired of promises from politicians with very little to show for it. But yet they are optimistic. There's an optimism, because a lot of them have stayed. Not everyone who could leave has left. And those are the people we focused on in our film.

KMc: This is an odd juxtaposition, but I just finished reading Friday Night Lights, the book from over 20 years ago, set in Odessa, Texas. The book highlights what a terrible place to live Odessa was in the late '80s, and yet, people were tenacious, and determined to stay.

Heidi Ewing: That's an interesting parallel. I would say Detroit has suffered some of the same fate as Texas -- the idea of bigger, bigger, more, more; that's such a Texas idea -- but how about smaller and more nimble? How about lean and mean? How about a city that works, with 400,000 people, instead of, "We want 2 million back here"?

KMc: So what do you think makes people stay in a place that offers so little?

Pride, man. Pride and tenacity. It comes from steel. It comes from the Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who came to the industry for a better life, to get rid of the agrarian lifestyle. The black middle class was invented in Detroit because of the auto industry, and people are proud of that -- that's their parents and grandparents; it's not like this happened 100 years ago, or it's ancient history. People were able to make a decent life in Detroit that they couldn't get elsewhere, and I think there's a pride to that.

Since the French trappers came to Detroit back in the day, there's been this sort of independent spirit -- a little Wild West left over. There&'s a characteristic to the city that's prickly, tenacious, and impossible to shock. They've seen it all.

KMc: It's just so mythical.

Heidi Ewing: Detroit had Motown, and Berry Gordy, and Ford, and GM. It is mythical. And tha's part of the reason we filmed Detropia the way that we did -- it's a myth, it's a fantasy, it's a dream. Was it ever real? Was it ever that great?

KMc: Is that where your title came from?

Heidi Ewing: Well, the title came from this one shot in the film where an artist had taken the sign from an auto parts sign and rearranged the letters and repainted it to say UTOPIA. I think it's a good title -- I think it fits. And it's fun to invent a new word.

KMc: What do you want audiences to take away from the film? Do you hope something happens as a result of the film?

Heidi Ewing: What we've seen so far, in places like Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Columbus, is that people see a metaphor for their own towns. I think that the film is a call for some kind of collective action in this country -- to rebuild our cities, to fix our schools, to fix the crumbling infrastructure that we thought was going to be fixed four years ago. Detroit can't do it alone; it doesn't have the resources. So I want people to care about the place, I want to shine a light on Detroit, and I also would like it to be used as an example of what can happen to a lot of other cities that deserve better.

Collective action is a tough thing, but I can't think of a more divided moment than right now. We're going to keep sliding -- Detroit will keep sliding, the country will keep sliding, and we'll just become a second-rate nation -- if we don't make some decisions as a country.

Detroit's a shocking place, and you want to shock people into reflecting: "Wait, I thought we were the greatest nation. What ever happened to American exceptionalism? Was that just bunk?" I would like Detropia to be a piece of art work that is in the canon of, "Come on, America. Let's wake up, guys." You can't just hope things away. All of us have to care, to really focus on our cities, because that's where most people live, and they're crumbling. And along with them are the futures of a lot of people. So it's a wake-up call, but no one film can do all that; we're just trying to be a part of the conversation.

"Detropia" opens in New York City at the IFC Center on Friday, Sept. 7, with more cities to follow. Find tickets.

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