Detropia: Sundance Film Review


U.S. Documentary Competition

Doc about Detroit's state of abandonment offers snapshots and sounds but little new information.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's doc tackles the many issues facing the people and the city of Detroit.

PARK CITY — More impressionistic than enlightening, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia introduces us to some interesting citizens of Detroit and gives them a welcome opportunity to speak for themselves, but reveals little we don't already know. More aesthetically pleasing but (by design) less focused than their last Sundance doc, 12th & Delaware, it's best suited to a slot on PBS.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance 2012

What might have been a eulogy for the once-mighty city or an impassioned cry for its renewal plays more like a tone poem about where things stand: We spend time in city-planning meetings and blues clubs, exploring decaying architecture and listening to dispiriting auto-worker union meetings.

Though demographic and economic statistics appear onscreen from time to time (distractingly, the type sometimes drifts along with the handheld image behind it), the doc's at its best when listening to a single voice -- like that of blogger Crystal Starr, who, wandering through once-grand offices, feels she remembers a time before her birth when the city "was bangin'" -- or avoiding language entirely, showing moody images of abandonment accompanied by Dial.81's atmospheric score.

Viewers familiar with photo projects such as "The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" and "Forgotten Detroit" may be disappointed that Grady and Ewing don't spend more time gliding quietly through the city's magnificent old hotels and theaters, though they do get some great footage of an operatic tenor singing in an acoustically suitable ruin. Audiences curious about reclamation efforts by young artists and idealists will find only a couple of minutes spent on the topic, offering little idea whether these projects are taking root or not. But we do spend some enjoyable time with people like Raven Lounge proprietor Tommy Stephens, who wears a suit even when frying up entrees and sends patrons off at the end of the night like a minister after Sunday services.

People and places like this, we gather, are the soul still clinging to a civic body whose blood has mostly been drained. If nothing else, Detropia succeeds in stoking our concern for a place most Americans have never visited.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Loki Films
Directors-Producers: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, David Menschel
Directors of photography: Tony Hardmon, Craig Atkinson
Music: Dial.81
Editor: Enat Sidi
Sales: Cinetic
No rating, 90 minutes