Documenting Detroit

Filmmakers focus on the Motor City
Filming “Lemonade:Detroit.” Top right: Shooting “Street Fighting Man.” // Photograph courtesy Of Sandi Wheaton

In September, Detroit Lives, a three-part documentary produced by Palladium Boots, was released for free on the rugged footwear company’s website. The 30-minute film starred Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville cruising around in an old Cadillac convertible with Phil Cooley (from Slows Bar BQ), and exploring the decrepit Eastown Theatre with members of garage-rock band The Dirtbombs. Some praised it as the antithesis of Chris Hansen’s Dateline special on the city. “You see a lot of bad stuff in the press about Detroit,” Knoxville says in the opening. “I can’t believe there’s nothing positive here; we came to see what else is going on.”

Others tagged Detroit Lives as just another way to display the city’s majesty of abandonment. “It’s a real easy thing to decry ruin porn, but still show it,” says Erik Proulx, a former advertiser who turned to documentaries after being laid off. “I haven’t gone through the exercise of counting the shots in the Palladium piece,” he wrote on his blog, “but it seems to me that at least two-thirds of the b-roll was dedicated to the very same ruin porn they were railing against.”

Whether it had merit or not, Detroit Lives unofficially kicked off a flurry of forthcoming documentaries of various caliber, about — or set in — Detroit. Proulx, for one, is filming Lemonade: Detroit, a follow-up to his first film, Lemonade, which featured individual stories of people around the country who’d lost their jobs. Proulx’s synopsis for the sequel: “When a city can’t rely on one industry anymore for its livelihood — where it goes from there.”

But why Detroit?

The former ad man from Massachusetts seems to be crafting a PR pitch for the city. “I want to sensationalize hope as much as Michael Moore sensationalizes poverty and despair,” he says. Lemonade: Detroit will feature interviews with Claire Nelson, from the Bureau of Urban Living, Chazz Miller, an artist who paints murals around the city, and others. Proulx says he’d like to release the film online, rather than taking it to film festivals, but it’s still in pre-production stages.

Heidi Ewing, a Farmington Hills native who now lives in New York City, agrees with Proulx. “I think the ruin porn news cycle, thankfully, has ended,” she says. “How many times can we watch the same story? Let’s move on.”

Ewing, whose past work includes the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, and the forthcoming Freakonomics: The Movie, is working on a Detroit documentary of her own. Detroit Hustles Harder (working title), supported by the Ford Foundation, PBS, and the Sundance Documentary Fund, is filmed in the cinéma vérité style — it doesn’t directly interview its subjects and there’s no narration.

Rather, the filmmakers follow five main characters who are connected in a Robert Altman-esque way. “They’re all sort of interconnected with their intention and determination to stick in Detroit,” Ewing says. One of the characters is Michigan Opera Theatre General Director David DiChiera. (The identities of the other characters are still under wraps.) If all goes well, Detroit Hustles Harder could premiere at next year’s Toronto Film Festival.

The goal of the film, Ewing says, is to add much-needed nuance to the overall narrative of the city. “I think a lot of the reporting on Detroit is tired, and it’s all very similar. A lot of times you see empty buildings with somebody standing in front of them explaining them. I haven’t seen a film about people interacting on the street level from the perspective of the people who live here.”

The desire to see and tell the story of people actually living in Detroit was also the catalyst for Street Fighting Man, a documentary by Salt Lake City-based filmmaker Andrew James (see related story on page 39). “The film is our attempt to paint an honest portrait of a community that’s trying to survive, and also trying to improve things for themselves,” James says. “I decided that I wanted to focus on people who are trying to make a difference, not just on, ‘Oh, look how bad it is.’ ”

But can he and the others nail the narrative of a city whose problems are so complex?

“I think being an outsider actually helps the film a little bit,” James says. “So many people here are hyper-sensitive about Detroit’s image, and they might go to great lengths to make things too positive. I’m really hoping to come in with an outside, objective viewpoint.”

The productions are here to stay for now, as long as funding doesn’t dry up. At press time, BURN, a documentary about Detroit firefighters, had less than 10 percent raised of the $90,000 needed to move forward. And the U.S. market for a positive Detroit story is yet to be tested. But the filmmakers remain unfazed.

“I think that Detroit holds a very nostalgic place in the hearts of American people,” Ewing says.

“There’s a national audience waiting to see what happens in Detroit,” Proulx adds. “Right now the coin is still flipping. It could go either way.

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