Last week the inexhaustible Docurama Films issued a DVD of Detropia, a politically pointed but often lyrical documentary about the economic collapse of Detroit that premiered here last year at Gene Sister Film Center and had some scattered exposure afterward. Just last month it was followed by the firefighting documentary Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, which will no doubt be showing up on cable and video soon as well. It’s not unusual for two films to land on the same subject within months of each other, but these two are particularly interesting in tandem because they both examine the problem of empty housing in blighted neighborhoods, and what might be done to rescue a city that’s become dangerously depopulated.
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, Detropia is one of the best documentaries I saw last year, recording the city’s collapse in the lives of real people and weaving opera, soul, and hip-hop sounds around an indictment of income disparity in America. One of its most potent scenes shows workers for the manufacturing company American Axle showing up for a union meeting at which they’re served some bitter news: the company will slash wages a devastating $2.50 to $3 an hour or close the plant. Incensed and grasping for their self-respect, the workers refuse even to bring the matter to a vote; a subsequent title tells us that American Axle made good on its threat.