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Performance artists find their muse in downtrodden Detroit in Oscar-nominated documentary

SCREENING + LIVE EVENT: DETROPIA (Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, 2012)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Sunday, November 27, $12, 4:30
Series runs through December 23

In his 1994 autobiography, Hard Stuff, former Detroit mayor Coleman Young wrote, “In the evolutionary urban order, Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” That’s precisely the warning that permeates Detropia, the latest documentary by director-producers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who have previously teamed up on such films as The Boys of Baraka, the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, and the Peabody-winning 12th & Delaware. Detroit native Ewing and former private investigator Grady examine the current sad state of the once-proud city, which has seen its population plummet, unemployment skyrocket, and its infrastructure being torn away piece by piece. At one point, Mayor Dave Bing, an NBA Hall of Famer who played for the Pistons, talks about downsizing the city as a whole — but not wanting to use that exact word when revealing the plan to the people. Grady and Ewing, along with cinematographers Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson (who also served as a producer), follow around such fascinating characters as UAW local 22 president George McGregor, who speaks with union members and retirees and describes in detail the loss of jobs and plants; Crystal Starr, a young video blogger giving her take on the city’s myriad problems; and Tommy Stevens, a former schoolteacher who now runs the popular Raven Lounge and wonders, at an auto show, how Detroit can possibly keep up with China, especially regarding the electric car known as the Volt. In one particularly poignant scene, a group of men tear down an old Cadillac repair shop, saving the metal to resell and burning the rest to keep warm.

The film regularly cuts back to performances at the Detroit Opera House, which is struggling to stay alive, desperate to bring culture to what is quickly becoming a ghost town visited by tourists interested in gawking at the immense decay. Even a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado slyly references the fall of the automobile industry. The soundtrack mixes hip-hop from the Detroit-based Blair French, better known as Dial.81, along with old-time R&B and songs from experimental band Victoire, providing unique sounds to the extraordinary visuals. It’s hard not to watch the film and see Detroit as a microcosm for America, which is trying to pull itself out of a deep, dark recession that won’t seem to go away. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Detropia is screening November 27 at 4:30 as part of the Museum of the Moving Image series “Pushing the Envelope: A Decade of Documentary at the Cinema Eye Honors,” followed by a Q&A with Grady and Ewing; the series, which celebrates the upcoming tenth annual Cinema Eye Honors awards, continues through December 23 with such other past Cinema Eye nominees and winners as Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, and the director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The nominees for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking for the 2017 Cinema Eye Honors are Cameraperson, Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, OJ: Made in America, and Weiner; the winners will be announced at the Museum of the Moving Image on January 11.

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