Interview: Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing on Revving Up Motor City With the Oscar Shortlisted “Detropia”

The directors of "12th and Delaware" and "Jesus Camp" talk about undertaking a film that captures the massive rebuilding process and rebirth of Detroit....Read More
A scene in Detroit in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary "Detropia"

Ever since their 2005 debut “The Boys of Baraka” as co-directors, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have often found the way to tell the biggest stories has been through the smallest of examples. With “Jesus Camp” and “12th and Delaware,” the documentarian duo addressed religion and abortion, respectively by eschewing a larger ideological scope in favor of approaching the culturally sensitive issues in intimate, human terms. But how could such a method work when making a film encompassing an entire culture on the decline?

Pretty well, to go by “Detropia,” which tackles the myriad difficulties facing Detroit not through a recitation of the devastating unemployment rates or the other obvious signs of the economic depression, but by conjuring up the soul of the city through its citizenry. An aural experience as much as a visual one, “Detropia” surveys the Motor City from rooftops of abandoned buildings, inside the corridors of power and from union halls to concert halls all fighting against the malaise of hopelessness in search of answers to restore it back to its former glory. This requires fresh ideas, which Grady and Ewing clearly let influence their directing choices, not to mention how they eventually distributed the film following its debut at Sundance last year, serving as some of the very first filmmakers of note to develop a distribution plan financed by crowdsourcing, allowing them to keep the rights to their work, which in turn allowed them to share the film with other communities in economic peril on their own terms.

Recently shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination, I wanted to publish the full conversation I had with Grady and Ewing for an article earlier this year for TakePart while the film is still in theaters and on the verge of its release on DVD, in which we discussed their unique approach to a city whose troubles are well-documented, the personal meaning of the film to one of its co-directors and where Detroit could lead the way for the rest of America.

Given your previous films, it was surprising to see you tackle something of this scope – how do you approach making a film about an entire city? 

Heidi Ewing: We’d never done it before, which is one of the reasons we did it because you want to keep growing and expanding. We have done micro films that tell a macro story, so we’ll stand on a street corner in Florida for a year and look at an abortion clinic and a pro-life clinic and really try to tell the story of where we are with [the issue of] abortion in America. We’ll go to summer camp and it seems like a film about a summer camp, but really it’s about the evangelical right. That has been our comfort zone, but when you try to make a film about a city as vast and epic and storied as Detroit, you can’t do that anymore. It’s hard enough to succeed making a film about a city anyway, but you certainly can’t hang your hat on a street corner or in one apartment. You can’t go micro because there’s nothing micro about it. So we really had to change the style and once we decided to jump off a cliff creatively, things got a little easier. We really didn’t have a blueprint and basically we tried to be the bird and float from place to place. And I think what happened is in telling the story of Detroit, we hope to have told the national story. 

What drew you to Detroit at this point in time?

Rachel Grady: It’s been an important part of American history over the last hundred years and has always been somewhat of a bellwether. Heidi was born and raised in the area, so it was really near and dear to her heart and once I had been there, you ask the question what happened?

Was the mix of having Heidi as a Detroit native and Rachel as an outsider impact the final product?

RG: That’s hard to avoid. Every story, you come to the table with your own [perspective]…we fight it. We feel it’s important to fight the instinct to put your opinion first and be open to being wrong, to learning more, but that’s always a challenge. I can’t speak for Heidi [about] what this particular film meant, but hopefully you’re wrong about what you think because then there’s an element of magic and surprise.

HE: This one for me wasn’t even about being wrong or right. I have a familiarity and a comfort with certain issues in the film, especially when it comes to manufacturing because my dad and his two brothers ran a manufacturing business. I would visit my dad in the factory and watch him try to survive by inventing harder-to-make parts as the price of steel changed and Japan became competitive. So I grew up with it and didn’t think anything of it, really at all ever again until becoming an adult when you start realizing a majority of manufacturing businesses have closed.

For me, the issues of manufacturing and unions and the global competition were an area where I was actually really comfortable. I like talking about it and I like hanging out at the union hall with the guys. That was the one aspect for me personally where I was like this is really fun whereas standing out in front of the abortion clinic or hanging out in evangelical churches, I was never comfortable. We were very, very careful not to go in with an agenda. But there was a familiarity and for me, it was a different experience [than our previous films] in that respect because mostly we make films about things we have no connection with.

One of my very favorite things about this film is how you use sound with many disembodied voices either over the radio or from interviews, so there’s almost a disconnect between the people talking about Detroit and seeing the reality of it. How did that come about as an idea?

RG: What was exciting for us was…they’re right on the nose, the subjects in our film. Weirdly all roads in conversation led to China somehow and there’s a national anxiety right now and a looking within and these Detroiters have been living through these exact same problems for a lot longer than the rest of us. That became really exciting to us to have all these disparate voices having somehow the same conversation. They didn’t seem like ships passing in the night —  the guys running the opera house are feeling the effects of a one-industry town just like the scrappers are. The opera company is in danger of imploding because of reliance on corporation for all these years [for the same reason] those guys are unemployed and digging through scrap metal because we didn’t see longterm. There’s been a lot of short-term thinking in this country and you could see that in the auto industry in the ’70s and ’80s. In a way it was like all these voices having one unified conversation and we tried to reflect that in the style of the film.

On a project like this, when do you decide you have enough material?

RG: When to stop? When the money runs out. [laughs]

HE: That’s how it always is. What’s the famous quote? ‘Films aren’t ever finished, just abandoned.’ Our editor loves to quote that. There’s no ending to this movie. Every day, there’s a new development. It’s crazy. We have 80 minutes of DVD extras that are like a whole separate movie.  This is going to be the most unfinished experience we’ve had, I think. They’re all unfinished, but it’s a city, it’s changing. The geography is changing of the place and we had to just force ourselves to stop. But to be totally frank with you, we changed the film eight weeks [before it was scheduled for release after it already premiered at festivals] and just finished, so we did go back in and make some deletions, additions, improvements to keep it more current. It’s one of the pitfalls, I guess, of trying to take on a living organism. It’s never over.

Have you been encouraged by the response to the film in how its helped facilitate conversation?

RG: There are aspects of the situation in Detroit that there are many, many cities that can relate to and there is a way for these communities to interact, to share with each other what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, from innovative ideas to bring people to cities to raising tax bases. A lot of cities are going broke. Detroit is not the first. It would actually be the sixth in just Michigan to go bankrupt, if it ever was to go bankrupt. Most people live in cities at this point in the world and we need to take care of them and we need to figure out how to make them functioning, have high quality of life. Detroit can teach a lot about that.

HE: The mayor of East Cleveland got a panel together of urban planners and people that were involved in the city of Cleveland, using “Detropia” to have a conversation about their own city. It’s happened in Indianapolis. We really are encouraging that. We’ve never independently distributed, so it’s all new to us in terms of what to do, but we’ve tried to partner with different organizations that are focused on cities like the Ford Foundation, Living Cities and talking to them about helping provide either Q & As or panels after, so I suspect long beyond the theatrical release, the film will be used at universities and in different cities to help foster a conversation about their own challenges.

“Detropia” continues to play around North American including upcoming dates at the Durango Stadium 9 in Durango, Colorado and the Cineport 10 in Las Cruces, New Mexico on January 16th, the Cinematheque in Vancouver on February 21st and at the Flint Museum of Art in Flint, Michigan from February 22-24. A full schedule is here. It will also debut on VOD and DVD on January 15th.

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