Ewing grew up outside Detroit, Grady says, and had long advocated making a film about the city. Its rebirth “is the story the mainstream press has been touting for years, and we thought that’s what was happening. Then we got there, and we realized that it was much more complicated than that.”
What the filmmakers found was a metropolis that had shrunk from 1.8 million inhabitants in 1950 to a little more than 700,000 in 2010. One family was departing every 20 minutes, and 40 of the city’s 139 square miles were essentially empty. Real unemployment was estimated at 50 percent.
Ewing and Grady filmed for more than a year. While they worked, Mayor Dave Bing (D) warned of possible bankruptcy and proposed requiring residents of little-populated neighborhoods to move to denser ones.
Of the partners’ original concept for the movie, Grady says: “You know, shame on us. We always tell people you can’t go in with a preconceived idea. You can have a loose theory, but don’t be dogmatic.”
The movie focuses on a few characters, including George McGregor, the president of United Auto Workers Local 22; Tommy Stevens, whose Raven Lounge presents old-school soul and blues; and Crystal Starr, a video blogger who explores and documents the city’s abundant ruins. Shown more glancingly are an arty young couple attracted by cheap lofts, Swiss tourists seeking picturesque decay and men who collect scrap metal from abandoned houses.
“We interviewed literally hundreds of people when we first got there — before we took out the camera,” Grady says. “Then, you just sort of sift through and end up including people who have a lot of distinct qualities so you’re not redundant in your storytelling.
“Also, it’s got to be entertaining,” she adds. “We felt like these people were fun to watch, fun to listen to.”
Storytelling, the director says, is less central to “Detropia” than it was to such previous Ewing and Grady efforts as “The Boys of Baraka” (about poor Baltimore boys sent to an experimental school in Kenya) and “12th and Delaware” (named for a Florida intersection where an abortion clinic faces a pro-life pregnancy center).
The partners began shooting without a narrative framework, Grady says. “Not only did we not have a structure, I don’t know if it has a structure now,” she says. “It’s a total departure for us. It’s more of a mood piece, a poem, a tapestry of the national climate.”