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Three documentaries provide new insight into Detroit

Films such as 'Detropia' and 'Searching for Sugarman' put the Motor City in the spotlight.

By Erin EssenmacherThe Film Panel Notetaker / June 28, 2012

The city of Detroit is the center of three documentaries, including 'Detropia.'

Rebecca Cook/Reuters


One of the magical things for me about art in general, and documentary film in particular, is the ability to make connections, to reveal patterns in seemingly disparate parts of life.I was struck again by this when I saw the third (excellent) Silverdocs film in a row featuring Detroit as a central or strong supporting character.

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Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s latest effort Detropia is, as the name would suggest, set in the Motor City. While Detroit is the star of the show, as the name would also suggest, the film is bigger than Detroit. What really makes the film stand apart is Grady and Ewing’s ability to connect the dots and show how Detroit is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the U.S. The decline of the Detroit parallels decline of the middle class and the greatest destruction of wealth this country has seen. So at its core Detropia is really about the fate of Detroit as a metaphor for the fate of all of us – will we move towards rebirth and utopia? Or crumble and slide into dystopia? The core lies in the spirit of its the scrappy residents fighting to keep the city alive. Tommy, a native Detroiter and owner of the Raven bar just outside the city, gets one of the last and most powerful lines of the film (and I’m paraphrasing here) “when you see your neighbor’s house is on fire, you need to help them put it out because you know your house will be next.”

In contrast, Hans Petter Moland’s When Bubbles Burst – a riveting and insightful look into to roots of the global financial meltdown, is set half a world away in Vik, Norway. When city officials discover that the city is nearly bankrupt thanks to some bad U.S. bonds that go belly up, they travel the globe trying to determine how this could have happened. Their first stop? Yup, you guessed it – Detroit, which they describe as ground zero for the housing crisis. Ten minutes in, the tracking shots of boarded up and burnt out homes that look more like 1980’s Beirut than anything you’d expect to see in 21st century America, are all too familiar. And as our Norwegian friends drive by the desolate and decaying multi-story building that was once one of the country’s busiest and most beautiful train stations, Tommy’s words ring in my ear. In our highly connected and globalized economy Vik, Norway might as well be a Detroit suburb – we’re all connected here and all of our houses are burning.

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