A vivid portrait of Detroit, America's first major post-industrial city, as it struggles to deal with the consequences of a broken economic system.
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Produced by Craig Atkinson
Executive Producers: Dan Cogan, David Menschel
Editor: Enat Sidi
Cinematography: Tony Hardmon, Craig Atkinson
Composer: Blair French
Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
A co-production of Loki Films, LLC and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)
Note: There are two versions of this program on the same DVD: 86-minutes and 58-minutes.
"The most moving documentary I have seen in years." David Denby, The New Yorker
Detroit's story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century...the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos.
With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, DETROPIA sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. These soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.
Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adults
US Release Date: 2012
Copyright Date: 2012
DVD ISBN: 1-93777-242-X
"Elegiac and evocative, the documentary offers a richly textured view of the postindustrial city. As much a work of art as a social documentary, it paints a subtle and haunting picture of a city in precipitous postindustrial decline with slivers of salvation and glimpses of hope. Some images remain long after, such as the man singing opera in an abandoned building. It avoids the easy stereotypes and usual clichés to pose the troubling question: Is Detroit a harbinger for the US of the near future?"
John Rennie Short, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Author, Alabaster Cities, Globalization, Modernity and The City and Cities and Suburbs
"Detropia creatively captures powerful imagery and individual stories showing how cities like Detroit are being devastated by globalization and economic policies which favor groups and interests holding vast wealth. In spite of this, the film shows how people across racial and ethnic boundaries are trying to become united and resourceful in challenging policies aimed at benefiting powerful corporations at the expense of their communities. The film holds important lessons for other U.S. cities where workers are seeking answers for responding to economic and political forces that de-value their families, neighbors, and communities."
Mr. James Jennings, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University
"How does it feel to live in a major U.S. city that has suffered massive job loss, depopulation, and the hollowing out of its middle class? Detropia shows us the human costs of deindustrialization, seen through the eyes of ordinary citizens coping with unemployment, declining incomes, and loss of city services...Yet juxtaposed against parts of the city that look like they've been excavated by archaeologists, we see the efforts of long-time residents along with some newcomers (mostly artists attracted by the low cost of housing), to salvage their city and make it once again a good place to live."
Dr. Mary Stevenson, Professor Emerita of Economics, University of Massachusetts, co-Author, The Urban Experience: Economics, Society, and Public Policy
"A vivid portrayal of the connections between a city and larger economic and political forces. It explodes the myth that the decline of Detroit is somehow the fault of Detroiters...The varied narratives of the city's future are brilliantly juxtaposed: the promise of the city's high culture arts, the influx of struggling young artists into downtown, and the less visible neighborhood clubs, vacant lots and union halls where long-time residents push back against long odds."
Dr. Elizabeth Mueller, Associate Professor in Community and Regional Planning, The University of Texas at Austin
"Viewers of this important documentary will be stunned by the apocalyptic images of Detroit neighborhoods and saddened by the residents' sense of hopelessness, depression and anger...The film notes that whole U.S. cities can fit within the abandoned areas of Detroit and shows that the fiscally mandatory road to 'right-sizing' the city is filled with political land mines for the city's leadership. As astute residents in the film observe, Detroit should be a wake up call to America."
Dr. Nancey Green Leigh, Director and Professor, School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lead author, Planning Local Economic Development, co-Author, Economic Revitalization: Cases and Strategies for City and Suburb
"Highly Recommended...What happened to Detroit should be a wake-up call to the rest of country. In the new economy, neither industries nor cities are too big to fail...[The filmmakers] tell this sad story, that include issues of race and class as much as economics, with cinematic beauty and grace."
Linda Frederiksen, Washington State University, Educational Media Reviews Online
"Poignant...Detropia shows what has happened...That means there are many issues that could be discussed in the classroom. Courses on social change, capitalism, anthropology of work, political anthropology, and economic anthropology would be good forums for this film."
Thomas Stevenson, Ohio University, Anthropology Review Database
"A striking portrayal of human resilience and ingenuity grappling with the fallout of an all but broken economic system, Detropia is highly recommended."
The Midwest Book Review
"Powerful...This thoughtful and thought-provoking documentary is a fond tribute to Detroit's past and a wake-up call to America's future."
Candace Smith, Booklist
"Depict[s] the desuetude and decay of the once-mighty Motor City...Highly recommended."
C. Cassady, Video Librarian
"Throughout, viewers see a proud city now down on its luck, with its citizens attempting to build a future...Highly recommended for all viewers."
Stephen Hupp, Library Journal
"Intense...Powerful, beautifully filmed."
Jonathan Ringen, Rolling Stone
"The most moving documentary I have seen in years. Both an ardent love letter to past vitality and a grateful salute to those who remain in place - the survivors, utterly without illusion, who refuse to leave. The filmmakers are so attuned to color and to shade that I was amazed by the handsomeness of what I was seeing. I'm not being perverse, this is a beautiful film."
David Denby, The New Yorker
"SPELLBINDING! Imagine if Frederick Wiseman and David Lynch had a bastard child, and you'll get a sense of the movie's off-kilter aesthetic, a potent and pointed mix of firsthand observation and surreal flights of fancy. Detropia moves with dreamlike fluidity between union halls and nightclubs, from abandoned factories to the Detroit opera house."
Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
"The evocative new documentary from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) is a portrait of a city that rose on utopian dreams, and then began a long decline to its current state of life support, all in just less than a century. The filmmakers pay elegy to the Detroit of the Motown era, with its thriving middle class supported by manufacturing. At the same time, they're honest about the fact that the version of Detroit local partisans yearn for is long gone and most likely not coming back."
Karina Longworth, The Village Voice
"This haunting piece of documentary cinema tells the story of one city in economic decay; but really, as the real people in the film repeatedly state, this isn't just a Detroit problem; it's an American problem."
Tambay A. Obenson, Indiewire
"Of all the Sundance films tackling the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the nation, the documentary Detropia stands out for how it encapsulates the causes and potential solutions."
John Horn and Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
"A startling, haunting documentary...Like a snapshot of a nightmarish future for many more American cities."
Tom Keogh, The Seattle Times
"The defeat of the middle class that has comprised the last decade of Detroit's history. That painful story and its meaning for the rest of America is the subject of Detropia, an important, heartbreaking, and yet still occasionally hilarious documentary."
Tim Wu, Slate
"Haunting and important...Crucial and enlightening."
New York Daily News
"Art often serves as a Rorschach test and this interpretation of the global economy's impact on the U.S. manufacturing base, as seen through the prism of Detroit, is bound to strike people with different perspectives in different ways."
Detroit Free Press
"Oddly beautiful...Subtler and richer than its blunt title suggests."
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"A well-chronicled tale with an undetermined ending...Haunting."
Mary Chapman, The New York Times
"City decay has never looked so eerily beautiful."
David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle
"Evocative...Beautifully composed...Detroit's story is a microcosm of America's--just, for now, slightly more desperate."
Karina Longworth, LA Weekly
"Gives you more than pretty pictures of abandoned buildings. It gives you the story of the people who live among them...What makes the dreamscape of Detropia so powerful is the fact that it's rooted in reality."
Rebecca Messner, Grist
"Detroit has become a state of mind of late--a mingled sense of loss, frustration and hope for renewal. That thought is eloquently reflected in Detropia."
Jennie Punter, The Globe and Mail
"Beautifully shot...A visually stunning film."
"A striking and moving study of 'what was' versus 'what it has become'...[A] cautionary tale with a lens that makes even devastation a thing of beauty."
Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
"A reality check...[An] anxious message of a middle-class slipping away."
Laura Berman, The Detroit News
"All of the scenes in this movie are deeply personal portraits. As devastating as the economic environment of Detroit is, the filmmaking in Detropia is so beautiful that the resilience of the city's remaining residents come through in the beauty of the film...The people in this film are real people, and they still have plenty of fight left in them. Perhaps Detropia will help spread that fighting spirit to the rest of the country."
Kim Nicoloni, Counterpunch
"The film reveals the tragedy through impressionist sequences that feel like stanzas of epic poetry, and are shot in rich, saturated colors straight from a Renaissance painting...Detropia's filmmakers stay out of the picture, hanging back to allow the viewer to absorb the meaning of Detroit's fate. It is even more complex than we thought."
Inga Saffron, Philadelphia Inquirer
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2 versions: the original 86-minute version and a 58-minute (bleeped) classroom version + 11 bonus features, SDH captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and scene selection.
The film's website
Awards and Festivals
Shortlist for Best Documentary, Academy Awards®
Best Editing, Feature Documentary, Sundance Film Festival
Outstanding Direction, Outstanding Original Score, Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking
Grand Jury Award, Independent Film Festival of Boston
Special Jury Mention, DocAviv: Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival
Grand Jury Award, Indianapolis Film Festival
Best Documentary Award, Indianapolis Film Festival
American Film Special Jury Prize, Traverse City Film Festival
Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Festival
Full Frame Documentary Festival
AFI/Silverdocs Documentary Festival
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
True/False Film Festival
Cleveland International Film Festival
Ashland Independent Film Festival
RiverRun International Film Festival
Sarasota Film Festival
St. Louis Vacancy Film Festival, Open/Closed Conference
Maryland Film Festival
Flyover Film Festival
Nantucket Film Festival
Aspen Ideas Festival
Brasilia International Film Festival
Indianapolis International Film Festival
Hamptons Film Festival SummerDocs Series
Woods Hole Film Festival
Irish Film Institute Stranger Than Fiction
Sidewalk Film Festival
Milwaukee Film Festival
Festival do Rio
Antenna International Documentary Film Festival
Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival
Twin Cities Film Festival
Tranzyt Documentary Film Festival
Tallgrass Film Festival
Utopia Film Festival
Vermont International Film Festival
Naples International Film Festival
Indie Memphis Film Festival
RIDM: Montreal International Documentary Festival
Princeton Environmental Film Festival
Vermont International Film Festival
Ecofalante Environmental Film Festival
Labor and Work Issues
Urban and Regional Planning
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... more Reviews
"Detroit may be the best city to illustrate the problems facing America today--and the thoroughly independent documentary Detropia may be the best movie...Offers a hypnotic look at every major issue in the presidential election, from lost manufacturing jobs to outsourcing to the disappearing middle class. With gorgeous, unflinching images, it tracks the decomposition of one of America's greatest cities into a place where people scavenge for scrap metal to survive."
Tim Molloy, The Wrap
"Beautiful...Ewing and Grady have found visual poetry in the ruins of this once-great city."
Sarah Boslaugh, Playback
"Seeps into your bones...Grady and Ewing are the most talented documentaries to come along in years...The movie is a terrifying look at a nation (and world?) in decline, and it leaves you more than a little uneasy."
Scott MacDonald, Toronto Standard
"A powerful and pertinent vision of one of the US' great dirty secrets and hopefully, it will direct as many eyeballs to Detroit as possible."
"I urge you all to see this film...if for no other reason than to get an education on what Detroit is going through. While painful to watch, it's very important that we do not bury our heads in the sand and that we pay attention to the demise of one of the greatest cities in our country."
Pink is the New Blog
"Detropia is devastating...Visually beautiful, but relentlessly not romantic. The shots hit hard and hurt. Like they should."
Daniel Denvir, VICE
"Fascinating...Experiential and elegiac, aiming to display both the pockets of life and joy and tradition still animating Motown, while at the same time moving us slowly through abandoned streets and decaying structures, to impress upon us just how unfathomably wrong it feels to see an American city in this state."
Michael Sicinski, Nashville Scene
"You might find yourself unable to look away, and in the end you might feel a little guilty for gawking, a little powerless in the face of economic turmoil. But sometimes watching can be empowering, depending on how you proceed once the credits have rolled."
Erin Gleeson, Baltimore City Paper
"A wrenching but mesmerizing documentary...The Confederacy of Dunces -- business, labor and government -- whose complacency let Humpty fall off the wall hasn't figured out how to put him together again."
Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[A] lyrical and intimate portrait of a city in crisis...Find[s] the beauty in the sublime, the poetry in the abandonment, and the hope in the recollections."
Kristin McCracken, Huffington Post