I was expecting to be impressed by the photography of this new documentary after seeing the trailer.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The aerial shots by the French film crew alone are stunning. While huge swats of abandoned factories and homes characterize the city in the popular imagination, it is the cavernous tall buildings that best define its post-apocalyptic nature of this once prosperous urban complex. Seeing these steeples in homage to capital from the vantage point of a helicopter, with sunlight screaming through their broken windows and the occasional falcon swooping down from a topmost story, delivers a shutter of awe and despair.
As a resident relates, the city has begun to revert to a “wild” state, not simply the one that existed 150 years ago, but one that provides a “wild” ecology for new critters, like the thousands of stray dogs, running in packs and occasionally attacking humans.
The images set the somber mood, but the “story” is told by a wide range of “survivors” who explain the most egregious anomalies that we see: like the massive Renaissance Center with its four giant office block towers and underground shopping mall. This twenty year old development has sucked all the tenants from the surrounding buildings, leaving them stacked along empty, wind-swept streets with the traffic lights stoically signaling as if to ghost cars.
The strangeness of Detroit: Wild City’s landscapes, intensified by the odd assortment of local characters depicted in the film, left me with a growing sense of despair. This gloomy mood was broken a few times by a glimpse of a possible alternative future. A large neighborhood party with music and dancing was one such moment, and the elderly African American uttering bitter truisms while tending to his medium-sized plot of land was another.
The film-maker states his intention, in an interview with a Detroit journalist, to have us re-imagine Detroit. But that takes more than a collection of eccentrics, it takes a collective effort, and on that level this documentary fails. The one scene ostensibly depicting civic spirit shows us a large group of teenagers recruited by a middle-aged guy who heads an organization called Blight Busters. Blight Busters is a volunteer wrecking crew that attacks abandoned houses to remove these eyesores before they get torched and cause prairie fires, or worse. Yet even this seemingly worthwhile endeavor is weird. The young people assembled to tear the house apart with sledge-hammers and crow bars are barked at by the organizer as if he were an Army sergeant. Weird.
The director in that same interview states “. . . I deliberately chose to avoid the people who have solutions, people who say, ‘Ah, Detroit is going to be that, or this….’ . . . There is a sentence that is very important to me, “Looking for the city is more important than finding the city” and I made the film exactly like that. Thinking about and looking for but not finding, that was more interesting to me.
For me the chance to explore a deeper reality was missed by this film. What we end up with is a bunch of individuals each seemingly caught up in their own fantasies. What is significant about Detroit is not simply the “possibilities” of the barren landscape of an industrial paradise, now a nightmare of modernity, but precisely the response of those people who are developing a practical alternative to this reality. And this returns me to Grace Lee Boggs and the work of the Boggs Center.