I was informed via the Internet that America has a great future. A political conservative penned an article claiming we are well situated to become the "crossroads nation," the center of the planet. Hallelujah! A liberal acquaintance posted his enthusiasm on Facebook. A middle-of-the-road friend emailed me his relief. But I couldn't join the celebration.
At the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival -- a quality festival that looks long and far to find stimulating and challenging films, and avoid the popular Hallelujahs -- I watched Detroit Wild City, a cinematic tour de force of a once great American city that is now wasted and discarded. Approximately half of Detroit's former population has fled, leaving behind the most vulnerable, the impoverished and unstable, the viciously violent -- even the stray dogs are dangerous in Detroit.
For decades the physical landscape of the city has been in heavy decline. Each year the asphalt losses to the grass and weeds, the expanding vacant lots and blocks are lifeless except for the thriving vegetation, and abandoned buildings downtown have been taken over by the pigeons. Crime is endemic, drugs are pervasive, but what really reigns supreme in Detroit are despair and hopelessness.
When originally founded in the early 18th century along the banks of the Detroit River, the town was mostly farm land. Today the city is again becoming farm land. Like the American Prairie where a morbid economy has led to depopulation and farm land returning to its prior state, parts of Detroit are traveling from urban neighborhoods to farm land as residents grow food, raise chickens and other animals. It's a weird urban back-to-the-country movement.
With the eye of an outsider and the temperament of a philosopher, French film director Florent Tillon deploys archival footage to show Detroit as a busting and productive mid-20th century city while moving through today's battered and still landscape. Amidst this desolation and destruction, he weaves in interviews with several astute, insightful residents. It's brains in the rubble. The weird becomes weirder.
Detroit Wild City is a powerful survey of an American city that only a half century ago was a shinning testament to American capitalism and today is an shameful example of an economic and political system that failed and doesn't care. I guess the center of the world doesn't need Detroit.
This is a powerful film that ends, unfortunately, and surprisingly, very weak. Detroit cannot be given an optimistic ending. It will take much more than farming and dedicated individuals and suburbanites having short flings in the city to turn this disaster around. It will require national resources and a vision backed by an army of dedicated citizens with a renewed sense of community. A few American cities have made partial comebacks, such as Baltimore, but these successes are few in comparison to the urban desolation running through America.
The French were forceful that America should not invade and occupy Iraq -- of course most Americans ridiculed the French pansies and dismissed their warnings -- I wish this French filmmaker would have forcefully ended his excellent film by questioning America's obsessional devotion to capitalism, the unrestrained, nearly unmonitored version. Capitalism as an economic system can be good and it can be bad, and when good it should be encouraged and when bad it should be restricted. But America does not hold capitalism accountable. America does not punish capitalism when it runs -- as capitalism ran from Detroit.
Nations go into steep decline because they refuse to change. They refuse to adjust to a changing world. They refuse to challenge their sacred national gods. Unrestrained capitalism is America's god. And now it is killing our country. It has killed Detroit.
Detroit Wild City walks us through the ruins of capitalism, we listen to the voice of reason from some good Americans in a bad place, and we witness the profound human tragedy. Underneath is the message of national decay and decline; underneath is something desperately wrong with America. Forget the "crossroads nation," we need to bring roads back to the city of Detroit.
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