The road to Detropia

A few words with the co-director

Filmmaker Heidi Ewing grew up in Farmington Hills and frequently visited a grandmother in Detroit. And while she moved on to Georgetown University for her education and Los Angeles and New York for her career, the city remained with her in spirit. Having garnered critical acclaim for her work with her film partner Rachel Grady on Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka, Ewing, along with Grady and Royal Oak native Craig Atkinson (a cinematographer and co-producer), returned to Detroit to embrace the city's challenges and failures, and look for the stories buried in the rubble. The result is a lyrical, impressionistic, sometimes melancholy glimpse at the lives of a scattered handful of survivors and dreamers who still believe in the city and its future, no matter how troubled.

We caught up with Ewing during her recent visit to Detroit for screenings of the film in Detroit and Ann Arbor. 

Metro Times: When you have a topic this broad and expansive, how do you pick an entryway into it?

Heidi Ewing: This was the opposite of every other time; our process was kind of inverted. Usually we pick something, like a summer camp.

MT: Right. Jesus Camp was small-scale, manageable operation

Ewing: Usually we pick something small, and then you walk away with something of a national story, like the rise of the Christian right, etc. This one was the opposite. We picked a city, a place we came from, then came and tried to figure out what it would tell us. We talked to hundreds of people, and the development process never really stopped. It's an inefficient way to make a film, but we did it. Our initial concept, we actually broke every rule we told other filmmakers, and went in with an agenda. We actually went in October 2009 with a title and everything, Detroit Hustles Harder, where we were looking for the Phoenix rising from the ashes story, Detroit as this petri dish of innovation that will try anything. 

MT: That's not the story you ended up with.

Ewing: No. We found something completely different, it seemed like we were shoehorning a story that wasn't that evident, or if it was evident, other things were hitting us much harder. We decided to drop that very quickly, and just started listening to people and following them around, and I think we ended up with a story that's more national in scope. 

MT: It's national, but Detroit is often I think, falsely assigned national status, as if this town reflected the decline of the whole country, but I think Detroit is its own peculiar set of circumstances, and weird mix.

Ewing: I think a lot of other cities have experienced things that have happened here, but Detroit has it all, the whole plethora and laundry list of challenges. 

MT: You have footage from the 1967 riots in the film, and there's sometimes a perception that that was a lightning strike out of the blue, but this community has always been segregated, and it's more stridently segregated than almost any other place that is allegedly metropolitan.

Ewing: It's probably the most segregated city in the North in this country. I don't think we intimate in the film that the race problems started in '67; we used the footage because it's a touchstone for the city. A lot of other cities have experienced their own riots, and it's something people can grasp and understand. We know there were race riots in the '40s. The history of segregation goes back to when the great migration started. Nobody was ever comfortable with all the African-American folks coming up from the South. Not really.


MT: And white flight started in the '50s with the building of the freeways. I guess what's frustrating is that this is a mood piece, it's an impression, a sketch. It's about feeling and, personally, I think a lot of us who live here are tired of feeling and we want to go deeper.

Ewing: I don't think you can speak for all Detroiters. You certainly can't speak for the people that were at the screening the other night, and other people from Detroit that have seen the film and actually appreciate the fact that we're not trying to do a complete history of the city, or trying to point the finger at race, or saying it was this or it was that. I think some people will actually welcome the idea that this is more of a mood piece that doesn't tell you what to think or feel.


Corey Hall writes about entertainment for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].