The Sundance Review Revue: DETROPIA

Indie directors looking to shoot a post-apocalyptic film on the cheap: head to Detroit. The reviews — mostly ecstatic reviews — are pouring in for Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s DETROPIA, and they are awash with heartbreaking descriptions of the once-great city’s crumbling infrastructure. At Film Threat, Don R. Lewis describes Detroit as looking like something “from a parallel universe that was hit by an Armageddon.” Others describe how absurdly cheap real estate has become in the area; you can buy a downtown loft for $25,000 because demand is so incredibly low. A director needs to take advantage of this sort of free production value.

That’s on the fiction side of things, though. In the world of documentaries, the images belong to Ewing and Grady, making their fourth feature after JESUS CAMP, THE BOYS OF BARAKA, and the Sundance ’10 selection 12TH & DELAWARE. This time they’ve trained their cameras on the Motor City, though perhaps it is time for Motown to get a new nickname — the automakers who turned the town into one of the country’s fastest growing and most prosperous metropolises have all but abandoned it for cheaper alternatives (cheaper than $25K for a loft? I guess labor costs matter too). At one time, Detroit was not only the source of American industry, it was also its greatest symbol. Now it stands for something else: the crumbling middle class and the erosion of our national wealth. And that is what Ewing and Grady set out to capture.

As Lewis explains, Ewing and Grady haven’t created an activist documentary, but rather a document in the truest sense of the word — capturing a broad survey of images and stories from the fallen metropolis. They interview the head of an auto union, a blogger who documents Detroit’s abandoned public spaces, and a retired schoolteacher turned bartender. The result, he writes, is “an almost picture perfect portrait of ‘the 99%’ that the Occupy movement is speaking for but in the case of Detroit, it appears to be too late. In the end this is an important documentary not only for what it says about our country now, but it’s also a well-crafted cinematic time capsule that shows a once bustling metropolis on its very last legs.”

A few of the less positive reviews complain the film may be too diffuse. Kate Erbland from Film School Rejects takes Ewing and Grady to task for a runtime that doesn’t properly balance each of their protagonists. She also finds the film’s surfaces perversely beautiful, but worries that surfaces are all the film really has. “Anyone who is familiar with the situation in Detroit won’t find much of a takeaway from DETROPIA,” she writes. “It never goes deeper than most other comparable investigations.” Similarly, Eric Kohn from Indiewire, who rates DETROPIA a “B,” admires the “provocative tone” but concedes that the film never quite rises “above the morbidity of its situation.” He notes that the film offers no solutions for the problems its addresses while the directors “soak in the destruction.”

Interestingly, Erbland and Kohn’s complaints seem to represent the same reasons why Karina Longworth from LA Weekly proclaimed DETROPIA the best documentary she’s seen so far at Sundance. “The images speak for themselves,” she says, “not least because they’re so beautifully considered and composed. As handheld, faux-documentary ‘realism’ becomes the dominant mode of indie narrative films, the standout documentaries are the ones that tack the other way, embracing the cinematic possibilities of the real.”

As more reviews and tweets trickle in following subsequent DETROPIA screenings, the overall critical sentiment seems to be drifting in Longworth’s direction: namely, that this is a standout documentary. And like I said, some filmmaker really needs to grab a camera and start shooting up in Detroit. Go and embrace some of the cinematic possibilities of the unreal. As usual, Twitter gets the last word.

“DETROPIA: equal parts documentary and ghost story. Left me in tears, a wreck. Magnificent. #Sundance” — Bilge Ebiri, New York

“DETROPIA: A blunt real doc on Detroit dyingthat should be mandatory for voters/candidates in 2012. Look on your works, ye 1%, and despair.” — James Rocchi, MSN Movies

“Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s gorgeous, haunting elegy to the Motor City, DETROPIA, personal high point of #sundance so far” — Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

“Saw #sundance doc @DetropiaTheFilm 2nite. Moments of heartbreak throughout. Very experiential, spectacular filmmaking. #Detropia” — Mark Marraccini, AMC News

“DETROPIA: decent characters & emotional connections, but lacks organization and punch of other Ewing & Grady films. #Sundance2012″ — Brian Coulton, CBC Radio

To find more Sundance screenings of DETROPIA, go to