Detropia: Filmmakers Behind New Detroit Doc Talk Recession, Recovery and Decay Tourism

What do Swiss tourists and film-festival moviegoers have in common?

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Tony Hardmon / Loki Films

Making a documentary always involves a certain amount of luck. One moment during the filming of the upcoming documentary Detropia—an atmospheric look at the economic state of Detroit that debuted at Sundance and starts it’s theatrical roll-out this Friday—epitomized that happy chance. Or not so happy chance, as the case may be. The directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (of 2006’s Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp), were filming a character who worked in a coffee shop, when Swiss tourists in big floppy winter hats came into the café. They wanted to know where they could see some good decay.

“We were like, ‘No. He. Did. Not,’” says Grady.

“We saw the hat and it was like, ‘We gotta roll! Dudes with the hats!’” Ewing, who grew up near Detroit, adds.

Those tourists weren’t a one-off thing: decay tourism is a real thing in Detroit (and elsewhere), with guided tours of the city’s empty skyscrapers, housing projects and mansions available for curious visitors. Ewing and Grady say that they wanted to give realistic portrayal of a place in crisis without giving into the voyeuristic urges that bring visitors from Switzerland to Michigan. In recent years, that balancing act has been a growing issue for the documentary filmmaking community.

(MORE‘Dark Tourism’: Ambroise Tézenas and the Pull of Death)

On the one hand, audiences like to look at stuff—or people—falling apart. The filmmaking process for Detropia was evidence of widespread interest in Detroit and its problems: the filmmakers went there to make a pitch trailer, because Ewing “felt like someone was going to make a film about Detroit and why not make it be us,” and received funding even before they knew what their Detroit movie would be about. The movie—named after a sign on Michigan Ave. on which an artist changed the words “auto parts” into “utopia”—ended up taking on the stories of the Detroit Opera House, the charismatic owner of a blues bar, an auto union official and others. And, of course, it’s got plenty of the decrepit buildings that have become a recent symbol of the city and a favorite of so-called “ruin porn” photographers. But, on the other hand, Ewing and Grady wanted to do more than gawk at destruction, and that means drawing the line somewhere.

“To not shoot any of [the decay] would be impossible, and Detroiters are talking about it all the time and interacting with the spaces. You’d have to really make a big effort not to show any of it,” says Ewing. “Having said that, we really tried. There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t put in.”

The decision to leave things out is perhaps getting harder to make. According to a study about the ethical challenges of documentary filmmaking, from the American University Center of Social Media, the growth of the documentary industry has added to the burden on the genre:

By the late 1990s, U.S. documentary filmmakers had become widely respected media makers, recognized as independent voices at a time of falling public confidence in mainstream media and in the integrity of the political process. At the same time, documentary television production was accelerating to fill the need for quality programming in ever-expanding screen time, generating popular, formula-driven programs… The trend towards faster and cheaper documentaries and the “assembly line” nature of work has proven challenging to filmmakers’ understanding of their obligations to subjects in particular. They also blurred the line between traditional documentary, reality, and hybrid forms.

The study was conducted in 2009, but Professor Patricia Aufderheide, its lead author and the director of the Center, cites recent examples of the blurring line between “reality” formats and documentary (for instance, this year’s Queen of Versailles, a lawsuit over which makes claims of manipulation for shock value). “[Documentaries] used to be a labor of love—or else work that was largely supported by the educational market, which definitely has a lot to answer for in terms of encouraging people to make terrible work,” she says. ‘The business model for producing documentaries is so different now, and it is driving toward sensationalism in every way.” Still, while there are no written best practices for documentary, the A.U. study found that most filmmakers operated on a set of core ethical values, says Aufderheide—and those values argue against giving into audiences’ rubber-necking urges.

(MOREThe Queen of Versailles: How the Biggest House in America Became a Brokedown Palace)

One such value dictates that, while documentary does not have to be journalistically precise, there must be a reason to show suffering. “I come to the film as a critic saying, ‘What is the justification other than sensationalism for me to see this material?'” Aufderheide says. “You’re talking about the difference between exploiting somebody for entertainment and voyeuristic pleasure, and exploring their reality and sharing it with people for some other purpose.”

The main goal behind that reasoning, as determined by the study, is the preservation of the trust relationship built up over the filming process. Detropia took a year to film, and the trust was hard-won from citizens who Grady describes as “defensive but for a reason.” And despite trends toward the reality-TV-ization of documentary, outside circumstances—wider economic problems caused by what Ewing and Grady see as the same shortsightedness that did in Detroit—provided a built-in way for Detropia to stay away from schadenfreude. “People are identifying with Detroit more than they would have ten years ago,” says Ewing. “I don’t think they would have said that ten years ago. So it’s the right film for the right moment.”

And, at least in this case, the filmmakers believe that audiences shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to see decay (respectfully) portrayed. “I think that it’s natural for us to be curious about what used to be here,” says Ewing. “It’s just human nature to want to look at the bones.”


(MOREDocumenting the Dissident: A Q&A with Alison Klayman, Director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)