'Lemonade Detroit' film shares stories of resilience

Documentary film by Erik Prouix highlights the resilience of Detroit while paying for itself through a Buy-A-Frame offer

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
Retired United Auto Workers Local 909 president Al Benchich carries a 'Put Detroit Back To Work' sign as he joins a demonstration of about a dozen workers demanding jobs in front of Cobo Center in Detroit Jan. 8, 2012. The film 'Lemonade Detroit' tells stories of resilience from the Motor City.

“I think that it’s a city that has begun to realize that it’s really only gonna be lots and lots of small solutions,” says one of the subjects of “Lemonade Detroit,” a film that highlights stories of resilience in the Motor City. “One building, one block at a time, one person at a time, one life at a time,” says another; yet another adds, “Lots of little things, that’s the future.”

They are community leaders, entrepreneurs, automobile manufacturers. They are Detroiters. And they refuse to believe that their city will not bounce back from the post-industrial crisis it finds itself in, with a drastically reduced population – now at 714,000, down from 2 million around 1950 – high unemployment, and an enormous swath of the city’s property lying vacant or blighted.

Erik Proulx, the creator of “Lemonade Detroit,” who is based in Austin, Texas, began filming “Lemonade Detroit” nearly two years ago. The stories of resilience he was finding in Detroit, stories of residents worked to create a future in a city that many said wouldn’t have one, needed to be told, he knew.

He is taking a unique approach to the film’s production, allowing individuals to become co-producers by purchasing frames or parts of frames – not only helping with the film’s expenses, but also creating a sense of engagement for people who see the film’s value as a motivator for other projects of resilience and social innovation. So far, 2,344 producers have funded 63,381 frames.

The film opens with a stunning performance by Detroiter David Blair, reading aloud his poem, “While I Was Away,” an ode to the city’s liveliness and a plea for its brighter future.

“My heart beats like tool and dye for you/Like horse power and pistons for you,” he says, lovingly. Blair, who recently passed away prematurely due to heat stroke, stands knee-deep in snow, gazing toward the city’s high-rises, projecting his voice toward the city where people are building a way forward for the city that once stood as a pillar of American industrial wealth.

Below, Proulx shares with Dowser the motivation behind the film and its crowdsourcing approach, and a few thoughts about the film's impact.

Dowser: How did the idea come about?
 Proulx: This is my second ‘Lemonade’ film; my first was bout people who got laid off and reinvented themselves, their lives and careers. And that was a wake-up call – that I had an opportunity in this seemingly devastating global crisis, that there was something I could do about it. And I was screening that film in Detroit in 2009 and there were about 400 people who had lost their jobs and I was sharing this film with them and I thought that there was going to be a case where I’d have to get people to understand that this isn’t Polyanna, you can actually do this, and really, all my preconceptions were wrong. My preconception coming in was, oh, it’s really bad – because I’d never been to Detroit before. So that struck me as interesting – if any population in the country of all the screenings I’ve been doing would have the right to feel disenfranchised, it would have been them. But actually, there was an amazing optimism. The more I asked around, the more stories that I found, and I kept seeing this "never say die" resiliency. And that’s why I wanted to make a film specifically about Detroit.

What made you attempt this crowdsourced approach to funding?
 I was talking about the film at a conference in Detroit and I showed a three-minute trailer. And somebody at the conference sent me a Tweet saying, hey, did you ever think about selling time in the film? I had had the idea to do Kickstarter, and I had this thought in my head about that million-dollar homepage a few years ago, where he sold pixels for one dollar, and then this guy said that, and that became Buy-A-Frame. There are 24 frames in every second of a film and 130,000 frames, give or take, over the course of a nine-minute feature, and all of those frames are on sale, for a dollar. In exchange, people get producer credits, and when the film is done, if they bought at least a second, I’ll send them a clip of the frame they purchased.

How do you find the people who share their stories in the film?
 A lot of people just send me links. I do a lot of reading and a lot of Google searches. And the best stories, I find them when I’m there. The best stories are people who may not even have e-mail addresses – people who started a business out of some situation in their neighborhood, or get themselves out of a homeless situation and are now doing things that are inspiring whole communities. There’s a lot of people who haven’t necessary been written about yet, and being there is how I get those stories.

What do you hope to do with the film when it’s complete?
 My first goal is to make sure that any Detroiter who wants to see it can see it – and not to feel like they are at the end of the rope, but at the beginning of it. When you’ve gone through difficulties for some time, you can feel hopeless. My best hope is that somebody sees the film and feels like, you know what, it’s not over. I was screening the 17-minute short of “Lemonade Detroit” at the Chamber of Commerce annual shareholders meeting in December, and this woman came up to me and she had been running a business for 10 years and had had a real hard time over the past year and she said, ‘Tomorrow I was going to go and file for dissolution, but you’ve inspire me to keep going, and I’m not going to give up in this business.’ And that’s why I did this. Even if it ended right here, I would feel that it was worthwhile. So, I just want more of that.

Are you sending it to festivals?
 A lot of festivals won’t screen it unless you’re premiering it there, and I’m just concerned about screening it in Detroit, and having Detroit own the film – because the people who live there who have bought frames for it own the film, and I want them to have the first crack at seeing it. 

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org. A 17-minute version of the film can be seen with the original story.

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