09/07/2012 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jumpstarting the Motor City: Rachel Grady on Detropia

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made documentaries about entire subcultures, but their latest tackles a whole city. Detropia looks unflinchingly at the grim realities of contemporary Detroit, which is where Ewing grew up. The city has changed drastically since then.

In 1930, it was the fastest growing city in the United States. It is now the fastest shrinking, with miles of empty buildings that are likely never to be re-inhabited. With the auto industry in the United States in decline and the jobs it supported going abroad, there seems little reason to revive the city. The film even follows city leaders who try to convince people living in outlying regions to move closer because the cash-strapped police and bus services simply can't cover those areas.


Directors Rachel Grady (left) and Heidi Ewing (far right) answer questions about Detropia at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo. in March. Photo by Lybarger.

The film also documents young artists who use the wide open spaces of Detroit as a sort of canvas and club owner Tommy Stevens, who fixes abandoned homes in his spare time. The film also includes the thoughts of blogger and podcaster Crystal Starr, who uses her platform to call attention to the city's rich history. The film received an award for Enat Sidi's editing at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It opens today at the IFC Center in New York.

This panoramic view is a notable contrast from Ewing and Grady's previous movies. Their Emmy-nominated The Boys of Baraka (2005) followed a group of young men who were sent from inner city Baltimore to Kenya to receive an education they couldn't get in the States. 12th & Delaware (2010) examined the fortunes of an abortion clinic in Fort Pierce, Florida and a group of activists determined to shut it down. Both buildings are with throwing distance of each other. That film for HBO earned them a Peabody Award. Ewing and Grady also made a segment of the "superstar" documentary Freakonomics (2010), which examined if troubled students would do better in school if they were paid to make good grades.

Currently, the duo is best known for their Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), which dealt with a Christian children's summer camp called "Kids on Fire." The film raised eyebrows across the country when tots were marching in fatigues and praying reverently on behalf of then President George W. Bush. A clip from the film of Colorado-based megachurch pastor Ted Haggard condemning homosexuality ended up going viral after he was outed.

Grady took time to discuss her projects with Ewing in March at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. She's the daughter of James Grady, the author of novels like Six Days of the Condor. She's also adamant that the rest of the country would be foolish to ignore Detroit's woes.

Ms. Ewing originally hails from Detroit. How was she able to convince you to go with her on this project?

It actually didn't take too much convincing. I went to Detroit a few times and was really surprised and intrigued by the city. It really feels like it's been abandoned.

It's got the mystique of being "Detroit," of being this storied place, of being the birthplace of the middle class, of being the birthplace of the auto industry, of being the birthplace of Motown (Records). This place means something to Americans.

So coming from a more national perspective, as someone who's lived in cities my whole life, it really wasn't a hard sell.

You and Ms. Ewing have described the long process you went through to find people to feature in Detropia. How did you find podcaster Crystal Starr?

We found Crystal Starr because she works down the street from the Opera House. It was really that simple. She was right there, and we were buying coffee from her, and we thought she was a total piece of work. She was fun to talk to, and we cast her.

You've only captured the middle of the crisis with the film. We haven't seen the end yet.

Yeah, listen. America needs to somewhat change its narrative. Detroit's part of that, so I don't think there's ever going to be an end, per se.

How long did it take you to get some of these people to talk with you?

We usually don't have too much trouble convincing people, if our heart is set on them. It was more that we filmed a lot of people, and it was a way to educate ourselves as well about the city. We wanted the city to tell us what the story was, and the citizens of the city. It was really that process that made us talk to hundreds of people over the year we were there.

What was it like to look at those huge abandoned buildings?

It's not just abandoned buildings or abandoned houses, which always has something a little bit haunting about it. There were abandoned skyscrapers downtown. There's something so unnerving and apocalyptic about it. I think that's why people call it "room porn."

And we wanted to be careful to include it because it is a reality, and it's what Detroit looks like, but not fetishize it. It's a thin line because it was so easy, so photogenic. It's so easy to go down the rabbit hole of misery, but you have to be careful because it's not all that. It's more than that.

Why did you two choose to open Detropia with the opera sequence?

We wanted to have the audience sort of get trained in this feeling that we were creating a tapestry. So we were wanted the opening to feel like a tapestry. So we strung together, via an opera song, a piece of the opera, a little bit of The Raven (a black owned R&B club that's the last of its kind in Detroit), a little bit of Crystal Starr, just bits and pieces--the song of the city, basically.

Even though you later show some horrifying ruins, the Detroit opera footage you do show looks really impressive.

It's a world-class opera. It's fantastic.

Are they still going to be able to function?

From what I've heard, they're doing OK. The bank paid some of their debt, and they're definitely doing another set of productions this year. Like a lot of other big art institutions, they're living year-to-year at this point.

There are a lot of troubled cities in America, but Detroit's situation is still unique. Would that be a fair statement?

I think it is. It's not that Detroit has unique problems. What's unique about its problems is the scale of its problems. They're deep and they're wide. They have all the same problems that every other city has, but they have all of them. And they have them very, very badly.

Now you've said, The Raven Lounge, which is featured prominently in Detropia, is the only jazz/R&B club left in the city. Is that correct?

It's the only black-owned one, which is insane because this is "Motown," the birthplace of America's own music. I think that says a lot.

The owner of The Raven Lounge, Tommy Stevens, seems a lot more resilient than the other business owners there.

He's the last one standing. He's definitely more resilient. He's got optimism. He's got eternal, deep optimism.

But there's that scene where he sees the Chevy Volt at a car show and realized that it's not going to match the competition...

And it dawns on him how far we behind we really are. We thought it was really amazing to see this really bright citizen figure out in real time how deep in a hole we really are. The Chinese are kicking our butt when it comes to EV, electronic vehicle, technology.

Detropia is a lot more ambitious than some of your earlier films, but as with Jesus Camp, you two really immerse your view in a culture. What it different this time?

You know, it's easier when it's just a subculture because it sort of defines itself. It's got walls, and a roof, and a floor. You know where you are. There's a physical space.

In this one, there was just space. There were big concepts. It was very challenging to go from a big idea to smaller ideas than the other thing that we usually do, which is take a small, character-driven concept and try to open it up to a big idea. So we just went in the opposite direction in this one. It was very challenging.

In your segment of Freakonomics, you and Ms. Ewing just followed a few teens around and learned if offering them money for good grades would work as an incentive.

Exactly, very simple structure.

So how did you find a focus for this film?

I don't know if we did. Do you (laughs)?

We edited, edited and edited. We drew the story out. We really continued learning what the story was about throughout the edit, which is sort of unusual for us as well. It was really a piece of clay that we had to form. It wasn't very obvious.

How do you and Ms. Ewing handle the equipment while you're shooting?

We hire our own camera person. We sometimes do our own sound. Sometimes we have a PA (production assistant) doing sound, booming. We keep our crews while we're filming as small as possible, two, maybe three people. We have to try and keep it small to try and keep as much intimacy as possible.

It might have been counterproductive if you have had a large crew in a film like Jesus Camp because the participants would have been distracted by all the crew.

I think it's very intimidating even to the most savvy person just to see a bunch of faces even as you want them to act as naturally as possible. Yes, it's counterproductive.

With Detropia, you seem to be trying to show interconnectedness. If one element fails, others will follow.

Cities and societies are fragile and are ecosystems that rely on one another. If an element of that society is very weak, it threatens the entire community, and Detroit is very much proof of that.

Do you think that if the auto industry had been allowed to fail...

Absolutely. The impact on Detroit would have been even worse. If it had been allowed to fail, it would have been even worse. There's still an employer, and there no (other) jobs there.

Even so, half of Detroit is unemployed.

It's terrible. That's what I'm saying. It's the scale. It's not that other cities don't have unemployment, but they don't have half-the-population unemployment.

Kansas City, where I live, is sprawling, and we have buildings that will never be occupied again. But you don't have miles and miles of these things.

There's pockets like that all over Detroit is the problem.

It's a one-industry town. In cities where there's been some revitalization that had the same problems as Detroit. For instance, Pittsburg diversified, and they got into different technologies. They were able to bounce back. That's something that has to happen in Michigan.

There is another factor with auto making. Even though the labor is called unskilled, it's repetitive, and there are people who wouldn't last ten seconds on an assembly line. It's a unique skill set, but there isn't much of a market for it.

That's something we're hoping can come out of the film, which is a concerted effort by our government to retrain our workers because we are not competitive in the global market. We're not. Our education system has become so deteriorated.

That reminds me of your segment of Freakonomics. It demonstrates that incentives work if the student already has motivation. If he or she doesn't have motivation...

You can't even buy it.

With Jesus Camp, I had a lot of friends and relatives who are devout Christians who found the stuff like the kids marching fatigues and praying for President Bush really creepy. This didn't match what they saw in Church at all. Why do you think Jesus Camp had that impact it did?

I think the timing was perfect. George W. Bush was at the height of his power right then, and I think people were alarmed that this guy was the leader of the free world. He had 30 million strong, devout followers, that felt like he was destined and ordained by Jesus Christ to be the president of the United States. It was just a critical mass of people.

Because you probably didn't know that megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, who condemns homosexuality in the film, would later be outed.

No. And then that happened right after the film was being released that Ted Haggard was just busted. Who knows? Maybe it was divine intervention.

Do you think that maybe Jesus Camp changed the way we talk about religion in this country?

I wouldn't go so far as to say the way we talk about religion, but how religion and politics mix. It may have added something to that conversation. But worldwide religion is the Number One topic. Anything can add to that conversation. That conversation is going to happen regardless.