As I enter Loki Films, it bustles with the kind of urgency usually reserved for Grand Central at rush hour. Only there are significantly less people and they’re all crammed into as much space as one of the vaunted train station’s bathrooms. Taking a seat at the intern’s post, I notice a DVD cover of Jesus Camp ready to print. I’d feel bad about stealing her seat, but the young’en is dispatched, white roll packaged ostensibly filled with posters destined for multiplexes around this great nation, celebrating the release of Detropia, a film that proposes the “great” descriptor is really a thing of the past. Hearing a YouTube clip of a southern man fear-mongering man behind a pulpit decrying the onset of American Sharia law doesn’t really help matters.
In a whirl I’m deposited into a side room, allowing for one of the film’s directors and producers, Heidi Ewing, to converse about her home city, one whose present seems worse than the near-comical fall out predicted in RoboCop. The film’s other director/producer, Rachel Grady, joins later after okaying the preacher’s clip for an upcoming HBO documentary that is to lock soon. But we’ll get to that.
The following conversation touches on Loki’s current production slate, the wonders of blues bars, dropping in on a city and suddenly making a movie, and how to characterize a city that might be a tipping point for the entire rust belt.
The Film Stage: So, how is it to run a production company and make movies?
Heidi Ewing: It’s fun, it’s just sometimes everything happens at once. The DVD extras [for Detropia] are due today. This film we just finished for HBO is due Friday, and Detropia is getting released, and we’re doing this piece for Stand Up 2 Cancer that they’re bugging us about. So somehow it’s all happening at the same time.
What’s the next film?
HE: It’s a short film we’re doing for HBO about Islamaphobia. And about three average kids, who are Muslims in a very conservative Muslim school in Michigan. Not Dearborn, near Detroit, Hamtramck.
So a lot of things around the Detroit area.
HE: Absolutely! You know, when it rains, it pours.
Did this come out of Detropia?
HE: We were already making Detropia, and we knew the largest Muslim community in the country was there, so they were interested in exploring the community [and] Islam in America. There’s no better place to do it than that area. It kind of grew out of the fact that they knew we were already on location there.
Now are there any more questions to be asked after that wonderful TLC show All-American Muslim?
HE: Oh my god! That is such bullshit. That is the biggest bullshit ever. I was offended by the entire thing. When you struggle so hard to pander to an audience, “they’re just like us, don’t worry, don’t be scared,” then it really downgrades everyone. And that’s what I thought it tried to do.
Which takes away the fact of what they are and who they are which makes–
HE: –Makes them different. And what if they’re not just like us? That doesn’t mean that they’re trying to kill us either. Why does everyone have to be just like us? It takes away from [what] a special and unique community it is. So don’t get me started. That’s a different movie, we’ll talk about that one next time!
So why Detropia?
HE: I’m originally from the area. I was born and raised a few miles from Detroit city, my parents are Detroiters. Most of my family still lives there: my cousins, my aunts and uncles, my parents. So going back over the years, [it] seemed to be getting worse and worse. The foreclosure crisis had spread into the suburbs, you heard of really crazy acts of violence. Everybody was talking about it at home. We started talking about Detroit in the office. One of our employees, Craig, is also from Detroit and he’s like, “I know, I’ve been noticing it as well.” We thought, let’s just take our camera and go there. Literally let’s just go, we’ll stay with my parents. What is there to be had?
We set up a few interviews with people. This one guy was buying houses on Craigslist for $500 and reselling them. This other guy was driving a fruit truck, trying to make a living. The [Detroit] Opera House, I’ve known the guy who runs it for years. So let’s just throw an amalgam of people together, let’s roll, let’s drive around, let’s see what we find. It really was amorphous. It just became obvious to us that there was some movie to be made here. It was cinematic. And there was such an attitude among the people, a weariness but a wisdom. We thought, “man, let’s make a movie in Detroit. We don’t know what it is, but there’s something here.”
We put our material together, made a trailer, and quickly found that there was an interest in Detroit when we started pitching it. Ford Foundation, PBS, people were ready to support us. They believed also that there was a story in Detroit, but they weren’t sure what either. We got the support pretty quickly and we moved to Detroit in September 2010 and stayed there for over a year, basically, and let the city speak to us. We feel that we found more of a national story.
Which I find interesting based off of the other works that you two have put together. This seems more about the city itself and the people who are in it rather than from the people out.
HE: We made the city into a character. It’s a chorus of voices. Our past work has been more micros. A street corner in Florida for 12th and Delaware, a summer camp for Jesus Camp, a school for inner city kids in Baltimore going to Africa [in The Boys of Baraka]. We don’t usually do macro stories, [focusing] on an idea or a city or a giant place. We’ve never done it before, and that was part of the challenge, the excitement. “Well we’ve never tried that, and let’s stretch our muscles.”
It definitely was an outside-in rather than an inside-out. It wasn’t like “oh we found this amazing school in Detroit that happens to be in Detroit.” No, we’re there because it’s Detroit. We’re there because this city has fallen so far, so fast, yet people believe in it. People are moving there. There are those lifers who refuse to leave. So what is it about Detroit? Why is it so special that it’s captured the American imagination? Let’s go there. We did try to make the city more of a character if that’s possible, visually.
Well those huge vista shots. That one apartment complex, twelve, thirteen stories high–
Just waving. How does it even get like that? What occurs to even get to that point? It’s shocking.
HE: The place is overwhelmed, the city’s bankrupt, people haven’t stopped leaving, and they were caught unprepared, really. It’s so vast. The problem with Detroit is it’s 139 square miles. It’s too large; it’s not containable. Very quickly grasses grow and pheasants appear and nature takes over and there are wooden houses. It was built [with] such hubris an pride. There’s this wild west feeling about the middle of Detroit. “We’ll just take this huge space and it’ll last forever. We’ll just keep building.” No long-term thinking.
No one ever thought that the auto industry wouldn’t last forever, or that there would be competition from Japan, or there would be other players that did things better than us. You can see it in the city layout. No one thought that we’d ever have to have a rainy day fund where we could get around and use public transportation and not everyone would have a car. It never occurred to anyone that there would be people without cars and 30% or more Detroiters don’t have an automobile. It was really short-term thinking that is part of Detroit’s problem. And it’s not Detroiters’ fault[s], but it’s the consequnces of things that happened long before.
Did you have a want to supply answers to this problem? It seemed there were a lot of questions. One of the most gripping, I felt, was when the head of the UAW was asking you guys, the filmmakers, all these questions, and there was nothing coming. And you cut out where you had to respond as he was badgering you. That seems rather indicative–
HE: —George! Yeah, “do you have a solution? We don’t!” We’re almost like the sounding board for Detroiters. “Oh, NOW you’re interested? You’re finally interested?” We’ve been talking about this shit for twenty-five years, and now you want to know what happened here? We’ve been waiting for you to come all this time because we’ve been worried about the declining middle class and the weakening of the unions, the rise of competition for so much longer than anyone else has cared.”
(Rachel Grady enters the room)
HE: Detroiters have a lot of questions and they don’t pretend to have the answers. I think that’s what you were feeling from George. A real frustration.
Was there any attempt while you were making the film to get more involvement from the mayor’s office? There is a shot discussing a chart.
HE: Oh the meeting! That’s Mayor Bing holding the meeting.
Rachel Grady: That was the only access we got. They were very–
HE: –They were tight with their message.
RG: They were, but they have had a lot of anger and push back from the citizens. People are very frustrated, and I think they’re gun shy right now. So we had conversations going with them for a long time, and they let us film that meeting and then they were like, “you’re finished.”
HE: Politicians aren’t good characters. Politicians in office — Cory Booker aside, [Brick City] was a great movie — but I think [Bing] had no incentive to be a huge player in the film. A thankless job, things weren’t going that great over there at all, so there wasn’t a lot to toot his own horn with. That meeting was probably what we needed. It showed what they were up against. And there’s not much you can do.
RG: We wanted the man on the street voice.
It came off as sympathetic. The enormity of the problem seems so large.
RG: Absolutely. That’s how I feel when I see that scene. It’s just like…(sighs)…like a big bag of cement that he needs to carry around. It’s intense. And he doesn’t have much to work with. He has no money, he doesn’t have the supportive of the state — the state’s pissed off at them, they’re rather harsh to them — and a very upset and disgruntled populate. It kind of sucks.
Especially that one meeting where you show him facing–
HE: –That meeting was a disaster.
RG: It was poorly planned.
HE: Terrible planning. People did not respond well. They did not communicate to the people what they were doing. But also it shows the range of emotions that Detroiters have. [It was] very volatile. They’re very passionate about their city and what’s happening.
It also shows how much they care. That’s a lot of people to come out for a town meeting.
HE: It was incredible. And all of them were that full. All were at different churches and they were packed, for five days. Because the city was so big, they’d do a huge chunk [at once] on the north side, the south side, the west side. We went to all the meetings – sold out, full of people. Yeah, they’re worried, they’re concerned about what’s happening to their city and they don’t understand it. It was unusual that that many people got themselves to those meetings cause it’s hard to get to those places with no public transportation that works, y’know?
How did you find the characters that populate the story? The video blogger I can see you finding rather easily, you can Google that.
HE: We found Crystell [Starr] at a café. She works at the coffee shop where she meets the Swiss guys. We found her that way, actually, walking into her shop.
Is that the way it worked, going hand to hand, person to person? How did you get Tommy Stevens?
HE: Isn’t he great? He’s the anchor of the movie. We love him.
RG: From another bar owner that was an amazing character unto himself.
HE: Yeah, Honest John.
RG: We asked him what other Blues or black-owned bars that you like? He’s like, “Well the Raymond [Lounge]. Everybody knows about the Raymond.” So we went to the Raymond and he was there. He’s smart and cool and that was that.
HE: We knew he was a keeper. Once we met him, and we met him early, early on, we knew that he was going to be a very important player in the film. We kind of found him early on.
RG: He was the second interview we did.
HE: And we found George at the union because the factory right up the street from the Raymond is represented by his local. We started getting turned on to other story ideas from that. It was very organic, actually.
It seemed this was a bit more organic than your previous work.
RG: It was, I think it was. All of them, you’re figuring out what the story is about [by] whittling it down and doing the editing process. Then you whittle it down more. This one, the whole time it felt like telling the story of a city through a handful of people is challenging. It was a journey, like a dance that was going on.
The Opera – 70% of it is funded by the Big Three auto makers. So in a sense, if the Big Three falls, the Opera House falls.
HE: It almost fell. It almost…bankrupt isn’t the right word….
RG: Foreclosed. The bank almost took it over. It couldn’t pay its loans.
HE: We had a scene in the film that we took out (it’s in the DVD extras) where they’re trying to figure out how to pay for it. I think it was…May? They just raised the money, $7 million from private [donations] from people in the suburbs, in the city.
RG: And the bank forgave some of the money.
HE: They raised $7 million, did that, and the bank, I think, forgave half, so they were able to get on solid footing again. But it was literally by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin. It almost went under. And that is happening in a major way across the country. What’s amazing, is the Detroit Institute of Arts was one of the few institutions that wasn’t publicly funded by the tax base. Some institutions in the city get some tax money. And for some reason DIA was not. They were also having problems and they put on a ballot in the last election, two weeks ago, where the people had to vote in Detroit and in Oakland and Wayne county if they were going to pay a little tiny more tax to go towards the DIA and they voted yes. This happened. Which was shocking!
RG: Good! But people want culture.
HE: They do!
RG: But these are people who don’t have bus service and they voted for that.
HE: So they just got saved, but it’s on really rickety ground. We just wanted to connect the dots that you have a one industry town and it’s like the domino effect. It affects everyone, including unexpected places like a fancy opera house.
The film seems to be making a point that the only people making a real big influx are sort of younger artists. Is that something that you believe in, that art will be able to save Detroit in some way, shape, or form?
RG: “Save” isn’t the right word. Part of a lot of things that are going to help Detroit but also have helped a lot of other struggling urban communities, artists are often at the forefront of change.
HE: It’s a good sign.
RG: It’s not a bad thing at all, but I think it’s slightly…dismissive of the people who have lived there for fifty years to say that they’re going to be saved by newcomers.
HE: It’s naive, too, because you’ve got huge systemic and infrastructure problems that artists aren’t fixing. I know I guess when more people come than more services get provided in certain neighborhoods, but it’s wishful thinking to put that out there that they’re going to save Detroit. And that’s a narrative that we’ve been reading a lot lately and I think we wish it were so, but we have to do some heavy lifting in places like Detroit before that will become a real, thriving community again.
Don’t want to put you guys in charge of reconfiguring Detroit.
HE: Oh, God!
RG: I don’t want that job.
Doesn’t seem like the film wants that either. Was that your goal of seeing the problem from the ground up?
RG: Yeah, and also to see how there might be a mirror there to other people in the United States, maybe other people in the world. “What do you have in common with this place?” more than “thank god we’re not them.” I think that this film is very, very important [for] people not in Detroit to see it.
HE: Absolutely. When we’ve shown the film across the country over the last six months, people in Cleveland and Indianapolis and everywhere else are saying, “I see the problems in my own city in Detroit in this movie.” It’s more looking at Detroit as a canary in the coal mine, part cautionary tale, part bellwether. It’s not just Detroit. We’ve got to pay attention cause this could happen in your own neighborhood. We really hope it’s not a film just about Detroit, [that] it has more of a national resonance.
I hope this isn’t the first in a long series of just going down the Rust Belt and seeing devastation along the way. But it does seem like the economy is moving that way.
HE: It does, doesn’t it? And we haven’t found a solution yet. No one has come up with [an idea] of where these people are going to work. So until that happens, I mean, it’s just trying to stop the bleeding.
Detropia is now in limited release.