It hasn't gotten the press or distribution of Bully or The Queen of Versailles or Searching for Sugar Man, but my choice for the best documentary film to screen in Memphis this year is Detropia, which first played locally at the Indie Memphis Film Festival last month and returns for a one-time showing at the Brooks Museum this week.
The title is a play on the word "dystopia," and Detropia is a ground-level glimpse at a major American city in the midst of a decline so swift and mammoth that a full return seems impossible.
Veteran documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka) eschew narration or visually out-of-context talking-head interviews. Their film establishes the particulars of Detroit's path from boom to bust, but the film isn't a history lesson. Rather, it's an immersion in what it's like to live in the city today, capturing daily life in Detroit — a city that's witnessed its population cut in half since 1955 — through the eyes of a handful of its citizens.
Embattled mayor Dave Bing and city planners are among them, as they struggle to deal with a shrinking population and tax base in a blighted city now far too spread out. Downsizing. Relocating populations. Razing abandoned homes. Detroit feels like a city now reverting, against its will, back to nature, once thriving neighborhoods returning to empty fields.
But the focus of Detropia is more on less heralded citizens: Union leader George McGregor and fellow auto workers trying to hold onto their jobs while minimizing losses in the latest round of concessionary bargaining. Young artist couple Steve and Dorota Coy, among the canaries repopulating the inner city, drawn by its dirt-cheap cost-of-living. Blogger Crystal Starr exploring and capturing the crumbling cityscape. And, most memorably, veteran resident Tommy Stephens, a retired teacher and current bar owner, who has borne witness to the collapse.
Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, December 13th, 7 p.m.
$8 or $6 for museum members