Art | Community | Opinion

Detroit, well-documented - (Part I)

Detroit has been the subject of many documentaries in recent years

Detroit has had some fifty or so documentaries (and several media specials) produced on it in the last five years or so. It has taken me a lot of reading hours to identify them and even more watching hours to understand what they are about.

This the first in a series of three posts in which I offer an overview of the Detroit documentary world.

Directors have come from near and far

Some are directed by talented Detroiters and Michiganders – Anthony Brogdon, Daniel FalconerKeith FamieOren GoldenbergCharlie Le DuffCarrie LeZotteNicole MacdonaldSue Marx, Ed Moore, Brad OsantoskiAl Profit (now in L.A.), Constance York and others.

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Deforce Director Daniel Falconer (source: spokesman-recorder.com)

Quite a few are international. The French and Brits have snuck back to do four each. Detroiters of Norwegian ancestry will be happy to see their ‘compatriots’ have done a couple. The Swedes and French Canadians have been here too.

The balance between ‘local’, national and international should augur well for insight and independence.

Awards and recognition have come

Documentaries on Detroit have garnered awards around the World. Searching for Sugar Man, the story of a Dylan-esque singer who disappeared from the public gaze, even took home the best documentary Oscar in 2013. Detropia, one of whose co-directors was Farmington Hills-raised Heidi Ewing, was short-listed in the same year but failed to make it into the final five on the night.

It all suggests considerable interest.

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Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary – produced by the late Swedish Director Malik Bendjelloul (source: soundconvictions.com)

What is it that so captivates documentary makers and viewers?

There seem to be a range of reasons why people are drawn to making and watching documentaries.

Some of it is a look at the stark imagery thrown up by abandonment – voyeurism and prurience.

Such images can however challenge the viewer to repurpose the building/space in their imagination. It’s like a make-over show – “How will Detroit repurpose its buildings and spaces – join us after the break to find out”.

It’s human interest – these are folks/characters who: have stoicism we marvel at; we want to see realize dreams or put their lives right or, sometimes, be ‘brought to book’ for wrongdoing. Detroit is the underdog we want to root for.

Some of it is civic nostalgia – this was Motown, key site for civil rights, great department stores, workshop of the World, arsenal for the war effort etc.

There’s civic pride – this is still Motor City, we still give the World musical innovation, many still live here and many are coming.

As the corollary to this, there is sometimes benchmarking – “our country/city’s got problems but at least we’re not Detroit!”.

The most reflective of all show how wider systems impact the city: how business, investment and workers migrate around city, country and world; federal laws on race; national housing finance practices etc.

And it is not as though each film belongs to one category alone – most have at least one of the above elements.

Stay tuned…

OK, that’s a lot of talk and not a lot of discussion on the specific documentaries themselves. In the next post I will take you through the films – an A to Z of what’s out there.

Click here to read Part II of this series, and here for Part III.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.