This is the tenth in an occasional series, The Recessionary Arts. Read more from the series here.
The inspiration for Philip Lauri's new documentary "After the Factory" came from an unexpected source: a note from a man in Lodz, Poland.
The email writer, Michal Gruda, had heard of Lauri's multimedia group, Detroit Lives! and had watched its previous film "The Farmer and the Philosopher," which examined how two Detroiters were trying to improve the city by taking two very different approaches. Gruda was struck by how closely the film's depictions of Detroit reflected his hometown in Poland.
The correspondence started in January 2011 and kept going.
"He was just telling me, 'you should see this city of mine, it's very similar to yours,'" Lauri said of Gruda. "He sent me a series of long emails which I was reading and looking at movies and photographs he was sending, and it became over time apparent that there was a connection."
Lauri eventually decided to take the plunge and ventured out to get a first-hand glimpse of Lodz. A planned week-long visit in May was extended to a full month after he saw an uncanny resemblance to Detroit in the Polish cityscape.
Once a booming textile town, Lodz fell into disrepair with the collapse of communism in Poland. It had become a shell of a metropolis with a hollowed-out city center -- unusual for a European city -- and a population that lived among the ruins of its once iconic factory complexes. According to Lauri, the city's residential areas fared no better as the health of neighborhoods tended "to mirror the health of factories."
Lauri tackled Lodz as a director intent on documenting and comparing the struggles facing residents in Detroit and the Polish city. He brought along fellow member of Detroit Lives!, Steven Oliver, as his cinematographer. Lauri also brought the support of 163 Kickstarter funders, who raised more than $10,000 for the movie and allowed the crew to nearly double its production budget.
Once they reached Lodz, Lauri and Oliver linked up with an organization called Topografie, a Polish version of their Detroit-based company. While the groups differ in their methods, Lauri said they shared a common outlook and sense of enthusiasm for and engagement with their respective cities.
Lauri and Oliver also got a chance to mix with creative filmmakers from Lodz's world-renowned film school, and Gruda even joined the project as the film's on-site producer.
With the aid of Gruda, Topagrafie and a couple of translators, the filmmakers launched a month-long cinematic investigation of Lodz.
Although the new documentary echoes many of the concerns about life in a post-industrial city that are expressed in "The Farmer and the Philosopher," Oliver said the new setting changed everything.
"[We're on a] global scale now," he said, adding that "The Farmer and the Philosopher" was more of a "micro look at the city."
Oliver considers "After the Factory" to be "zooming out and looking at the global marketplace." Lodz and Detroit are just "two of the best examples we have in the Western World of this type of process," he explained.
In their quest to compare and contrast the two cities, Lauri said he was surprised to find how much residents of Lodz shared the sense of hopelessness felt by so many Detroiters. Still, he was able to find a silver lining.
"When you witness that, it does nothing but underscore the brilliance of those who decide to take it upon themselves to reimagine the way things are done in the city," Lauri said.
And that's what "After the Factory" is ultimately about -- not the problems or inevitable differences between two places and cultures, but how folks in Lodz and Detroit are grappling with the challenges of our era. For Lauri, examining the two cities raises a lot of questions.
"What's next? What comes after the Industrial Age?" he said. "We're left to kind of rethink what it means to be a city and what it means to operate. How do we move the city forward?
The film may not answer those questions, but it explores how residents of Lodz and Detroit try to answer and adapt to these riddles, showing their approaches to media, technology, government and basic subsistence.
"I think the film just lays out a large toolkit of things that can be done, but more importantly are being done," Lauri said.
"After the Factory" will premiere at the Detroit Film Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. Interested viewers can reserve tickets in advance.
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