Noted documentarians come back home for newest film

Sundance Film Festival sensation ‘Detropia’ takes tough look at the Motor City

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published September 19, 2012

 Steve and Dorota Coy stand in front of a dilapidated house in Detroit. In the film “Detropia,” the street artists talk about why they came from Hawaii to be part of the growing artistic scene blossoming in the city.

Steve and Dorota Coy stand in front of a dilapidated house in Detroit. In the film “Detropia,” the street artists talk about why they came from Hawaii to be part of the growing artistic scene blossoming in the city.

Photo by Tony Hardmon

ROYAL OAK — The talents of filmmaker Heidi Ewing have taken her all around the country.

But when it comes down to it, for her, there’s no place like home.

Ewing has been keeping herself busy in New York City with her nonfiction film production company Loki Film. She and her co-director, Rachel Grady, stepped into the spotlight in 2006 when they released “Jesus Camp,” a documentary movie about a summer camp for children of evangelical Christians where the kids are encouraged to promote their faith and intertwine the church’s teachings into political actions. The film earned national acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination.

But before her name was lit up in Hollywood lights, Ewing was a student at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills. It was the memories she made during her youth in Michigan that drew her back to the Great Lakes state when she and Grady decided to take on their next documentary film. In October 2009, the duo began shooting “Detropia” — a movie that looks into the lives of a few Detroit residents trying to get by while the economy crashes and manufacturing jobs disappear.

“Coming here is coming home,” said Ewing while in Detroit for the movie’s premiere Sept. 14. “We think we found a national story in the story of Detroit that’s resonating with people from all over the country, from all walks of life, races and socioeconomic brackets.”

She and Grady, who hails from Washington, D.C., decided to take on the difficult topic of life in the struggling city. Along with producer Craig Atkinson, originally from Royal Oak, they raised money and moved to Detroit for a year. The team leased apartment space on the corner of Charlotte and Woodward Avenue, near Brush Park, and they started shooting despite the fact that they didn’t quite know what they would find once they arrived.

“It was a hard one to do. Detroit is so sprawling, so vast, so complex. (The film) is a portrait of Detroit, not the ultimate portrait of Detroit, which will never ever exist,” she said. “So we basically raised some money, moved to Detroit, and started filming and waiting for the story to unfold. The result is ‘Detropia.’”

While making the movie, the native metro Detroiters had the chance to enjoy some much-needed downtime with family in the area. Ewing said she would often take the crew to her parents’ home in Franklin for a hot meal and a few laughs around the dinner table. While it was helpful to make the movie in an area they were familiar with, Atkinson said it was important to return to Detroit as visitors from New York instead of current residents.

“You think you know what you know about a city. But you have to come back in a different capacity to really explore it as thoroughly as possible,” said Atkinson, a graduate of the former Kimball High School in Royal Oak.

But the homecoming wasn’t all fun and games for Ewing and Atkinson. Though they knew from news reports and family accounts how dire the economic situation was in Detroit, it wasn’t until they began shooting that they realized how bad things really were. Through the film, cameras follow several Detroit residents as they work to keep their businesses going, fight for city services, make a living in the auto industry, and above all else, stay afloat in the broken community.

Once the shooting was done and the editing was completed in New York City, the team came back to Michigan and screened the film with its subjects. One by one, the stars gave Loki Films their blessing. With that, the filmmakers raised money with the help of family, friends and the creative fundraising platform Kickstarter in order to release the movie themselves. “Detropia” is set to release in more than 50 cities nationwide thanks to lots of work and a little generosity from hometown connections, like Ewings’ Mercy High School friends, who raised money on her behalf. She said the film could’ve gone the traditional route through a big-name production company for distribution, but the filmmakers felt strongly that it needed to be seen before the November election, since so many of the film’s themes touch on important political topics.

She said the message in the movie applies to every American, not just Detroiters. That’s why she hopes documentary lovers across the country will come and check it out. The core of “Detropia,” she says, rings especially true for residents of the outlying suburban neighborhoods, who might feel as though they’re a part of the problem but too far out of reach to aid in a solution.

“The goings-on in Detroit have a ripple effect in the suburbs,” Ewing said. “The city/suburb divide is real. It’s a problem. It hasn’t gone away. They can’t get rid of each other and they’re intertwined, like it or not. Some feel frustrated by Detroit; some feel guilty about having left Detroit. So I think people in the suburbs care a great deal about what happens in the 139 square miles that is Detroit city. Everyone’s connected and everyone has a very strong stake in the matter.”

“Detropia” isn’t all doom and gloom, the filmmakers insist. There are “hints at solutions,” Ewing said, though they don’t claim to have a cure-all for the city’s troubles. For now, she and Atkinson only ask that interested people see the movie and become a part of the conversation.

“Do what you can do to support the city. Move to Detroit, start a business in Detroit, go to Eastern Market to buy your groceries. Buy a ticket to the opera and support the institutions,” she said, adding that after the film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, several audience members approached the directors and asked how they could move to Detroit and become a part of the city’s solution.

“Detropia” is now showing locally at Ren Cen 4 Theater in Detroit, Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and Landmark Main Art Theater in downtown Royal Oak. For more information on the movie and Loki Films, visit