I started hearing about this film when it had a Kickstarter campaign for distribution funding. From the directors of one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, Jesus Camp, Detropia turns its lens on the abandoned metropolis of Detroit. If you’ve ever been to Detroit, you know the city looks a lot like a movie backlot for films that take place in burned-out buildings and empty back alleys. The metaphor of a once prosperous city now looking like a forgotten cinematic version of itself has always struck me as the most tragic irony of all. Detroit has its loyalists, but economic realities are proving too trying to overcome. Detropia looks like a much needed harsh-as-nails glance on an example of what corporate greed and systemic economic meltdown can do to a beautiful American culture. Detroit has given us some of the most important pieces of Americana – “the birthplace of the middle class” – and we’ve left it behind.
Even though it may be the most important film currently in theaters, Detropia can be found on less than a dozen screens. None of which are west of the Mississippi or in the states likeliest to turn a blind eye to this kind of topic, brainwashed by the guise of Mitt Romney’s “hope for traditional America” pledge. As a documentary lover, this leaves yet another bitter taste in my mouth.
I’ve talked ad nauseum about my frustrations with American filmgoers’ and marketeers’ segregation of non-fiction cinema. Documentary programming currently saturates television because it’s cheap, fast, and doesn’t allow a star to wield any leverage over producers. The results have been mixed, but, like any young format, it’s getting better. So why the constant separation for documentaries features in our cultural consciousness? My belief is that, for moneymakers and governmental officials alike, non-fiction both bridges the gap between bureaucracy and commoners as well as presents potentially unexpected provocation in our citizens.
You don’t need to be Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis to reach multiplexes if you can catch lightning in a bottle with a doc topic. This poses a threat to control for marketers and hedge fund managers that pump money into studios. Additionally, costly revelation can come to a viewer from seeing something they perceive as real. The Thin Blue Line freed a man from prison. Super Size Me caused a multi-billion dollar shift in American eating habits. Fahrenheit 9/11 threatened to help change the outcome of our highest election. What fiction film can create that kind of immediate cause and effect ripple? Just recently, Republicans (albeit, late to the party and long on bad taste) funded a movie that purportedly unveiled Barack Obama’s secret evil motives. The kind of movie they made? A documentary, of course. If that doesn’t announce an open understanding of the power that non-fiction holds over our people, I don’t know what does.
There’s been significant awareness built by such popular outlets as Netflix and Hulu, so why do so many people think documentaries still belong in the “Special Interest” category? The truth is we’ve been taught that documentaries aren’t really movies. To most, they are stuffy pieces meant for History class rather than date night. I don’t take huge issue with this as docs are usually immensely informational. They aren’t meant for easy viewing. They are meant to expand our minds and the cinematic form. So, none of us (even me) would love watching the reality of our prison system if we’re hoping to get some action later that night. But its not that a film like Children Underground isn’t enjoyable, it’s that you have to work hard for the reward. It takes a different state of mind to enjoy it. A state of mind that works in contradiction to taking iPhone breaks and Tweeting comments midway.
What irks me most is the illusion that documentaries are easier to make and therefore not “real movies.” I work in non-fiction and have for some time now. Contrastingly, I have people close to me who work in Visual Effects (the thing I have to imagine sets most movies apart for filmgoers). There is absolutely no difference in degree of difficulty between one and the other. I assure you. I promise you. I implore you to believe me. The talents are different. They are tailored and refined differently. For example, going out in the freezing cold to inconspicuously capture a high stakes drug exchange between a politician and a kingpin is absolutely no less difficult than sitting a computer and setting Vin Diesel on fire. Different, but NOT easier. We need to change the way think about non-fiction at the risk of losing an art form that has the potential to literally transform our world.
So go out and see Detropia, or see Bully, or Jiro Dreams of Sushi, or any number of other documentaries still popping up in theaters. Support them, make them money, force distributors to have to book them.