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If Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia doesn’t create waves of uneasy recognition and sympathetic identification among Western New Yorkers, particularly Buffalonians, it’s difficult to imagine a movie that would resonate with them. The two director-writers have produced an involving, disturbing, and sometimes moving cinematic portrait of the steep decline of a great American metropolis.

At its outset, Detropia seems to be about the widespread, deeply impactive damage to Detroit, once one of this country’s truly important industrial and cultural centers, now staggering under the heavy burdens of a rapidly declining population (something more than 700,000 people, down from 1.5 million 40-odd years ago, an onscreen note says), spreading poverty, and a drastically reduced automotive industry (which had to be rescued by the Obama administration’s major intervention). Large swaths of Detroit are being depopulated as people leave the city seeking an escape from its bleak, seemingly hopeless future (a subject Artvoice columnist Bruce Fisher has addressed in discussing Buffalo in these pages).

Ewing and Grady’s movie is quietly and gracefully insistent in making its points, bringing a handsome technique and a modestly witty point of view to their task. Before too long, a viewer may notice that they are casting a much wider net than is necessary to portray Detroit’s plight. Detropia is really about the contemporary United States, and this message is increasingly less obscure as the picture proceeds. At one juncture, a savvy middle-aged owner of a bar and lounge in a city district encompassing a formerly robust automotive industry presence stands behind his bar with a bottle of beer and observes that Detroit is “only the tip of the iceberg.” He relates that a brother in Florida who used to brag about that state now complains that even Disney World isn’t what it used to be.

David Dichiera, general manager of the Michigan Opera Theatre, gives a pep talk to one of his audiences, but in his office he admits that the situation is about “the rise and demise” of an industrial city and says, “A lot of other cities will follow suit.” Two young “street artists” from Hawaii marvel at the affordable costs of a new apartment and a studio, without sensing the inadvertently parasitic nature of much gentrification.

A young urban-topics blogger, videographer, and activist breaks into abandoned, once-grand public buildings like a decaying theatre and a majestically massive railroad terminal to lament their pathetic state.

Detropia is really about the deindustrialization of America. It ends on a literally operatically elegiac note in one of those ruined cathedrals of bygone commerce and civilization. It’s these and the movie’s angry, perplexed, often courageous people you’re likely to remember.

Watch the trailer for Detropia

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