Local filmmakers’ doc analyzes Detroit’s struggles

Duo hopes background on journey of decline will help spur engagement, assistance

By: Chris Jackett | C&G Newspapers | Published March 9, 2012


Two local filmmakers have tried to capture the city of Detroit’s perilous problems and how it all got to this point in an 85-minute documentary called “DEFORCE.”

“DEFORCE” means “to take away or hold property from its rightful owner by force,” the filmmakers said. Royal Oak native Daniel Falconer, 28, and West Bloomfield resident Andrew Rodney, 29, shot more than 60 hours of footage to gather what they felt was needed to depict the city’s hardships.

The pair of 2001 alumni from Groves High School in Beverly Hills was scheduled to have the local premiere of “DEFORCE” at 8 p.m. March 9 at the Uptown Birmingham 8 before a 7 p.m. March 14 showing at the GM Theatre in Detroit. The film debuted at the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck in June 2010 before making stops in Bay City, 10 other U.S. locations and even once overseas in England before returning home this month.

“Our goal is just to be an education engagement resource. The region needs to be engaged a little more,” Rodney said. “It was certainly enriching. My exposure to Detroit was the same as anyone else with the headlines. (Then) I worked at a factory on Eight Mile and I got to know the workers there.”

Some of Rodney’s co-workers were murdered, he said, fueling his quest to find out why something like that would happen.

The documentary is heavy on statistics.

For example, there were more than 1.08 million occupied housing units in Detroit in 1960 and less than 275,000 occupied housing units in 2008, plus more than 100,000 that were abandoned or vacant.

“Blight is not an ugly footnote, but the city’s defining topographical characteristic,” narrator Nelson Jones said in the film.

The film also states that there are 19,500 homeless people in Detroit, Highland Park and Hazel Park. Of the homeless, 30 percent are children and 15-20 percent are mentally ill or substance abusers.

“It’s 10 miles from where I grew up, and in some ways, I never felt further from home. But the people there weren’t any different,” Falconer said. “It’s really bringing forth the differences between how they grew up and how I grew up.”

Fewer people and residences have led to lesser property taxes, heavily affecting the city’s finances, as well. Detroit’s median household income was 132 percent of the national average in 1949, but was just 56 percent of it in 2009.

Budget woes in focus

Financial mismanagement has not helped the situation.

According to the filmmakers, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spent more than $210,000 on the city credit card during his first 33 months in office, $50,000 of which was for personal expenditures. When a police officer and deputy police chief were fired for whistleblowing and took the city to court for wrongful termination, the city fought the case instead of settling for $1 million. It ended in a $9 million settlement.

“The level of corruption blew my mind. The policies blew my mind,” Falconer said. “It was written into the city charter that you can’t sell (certain houses) to a black or Jew. I wasn’t prepared for that. I thought it would be more subtle. Being from the area, I was proud of the area. I still am.”

Additionally, Detroit Public Schools overpaid by $4.2 million on land purchases in 2001-02, the film says. The district purchased five floors of the Fisher Building for $24.1 million in 2002 after The Farbman Group bought the entire building for $21.7 million one year prior. The district then paid The Farbman Group $14 million to renovate those five floors.

“As far as a crime and the schools, it’s definitely going to take a massive overhaul and probably some money,” Falconer said. “Tiny bite-sized community beautification (efforts) and neighborhood watch make a difference.”

Crime, by the numbers

The documentary chronicles key portions of the city’s history, ranging from the automobile boom and former Mayor Coleman Young’s Poletown Plant to the July 1967 riots and subsequent STRESS police task force’s sometimes lawless actions. “DEFORCE” touches on the corruption in Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor, shows a panoramic view of the differences on the border at Grosse Pointe Park and looks at the well-publicized crime statistics and how they got to that point.

“It’s bad to other people because other people didn’t grow up over here,” said “Nod,” a Detroit resident in the film. “But to us, it’s just regular. … It’s nothing to us.”

In 2006, an estimated $1.3 billion to $2.5 billion in drugs was trafficked through Detroit, as chronicled in the film. Of the 21,000 murders that have occurred in the city since 1969, many are drug related. In the first six months of 2004, 65 percent of 800 shootings in Detroit were drug related. In the same time span, 100 U.S. soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan.

“The most disturbing statistic that I’m always (repeating) is more than 21,000 people have been murdered since 1969. That’s the population of Birmingham or Sterling Heights,” Rodney said. “We’ve desensitized to the violence in the city. … If there were a shooting at Groves, it would just turn peoples’ worlds upside down and they’d pull their kids out of schools.”

They also put it this way: Spanning the three decades of the Northern Ireland Civil War in the late 20th century, Detroit’s murder rate was more than six times that of Northern Ireland during that same time period.

“Depending on how you quantify something, it sounds more or less shocking,” Falconer said. “The point is that you know it’s already bad here and this confirms it, but then we talk about why. It’s really important to have context going forward.”

Detroit’s city motto is “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes.”

However, one of the several sources interviewed for the documentary thinks it’s more of a regional mind frame that’s needed.

“Southeast Michigan is its own vessel, and it will sail or sink together,” said the Rev. Kevin Turman of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit at one point in the film.

Both Falconer and Rodney hope the documentary helps convey that message to viewers.

“Telling people to be more engaged would be lovely, but that’s kind of reaching for a documentary,” Falconer said. “It would be a nice side effect if people come away ticked off about the reality and want to get engaged.”

For more on the film, or to purchase a copy, visit www.deforcemovie.com.

For more information on the March 14 viewing at GM Theatre, 315 E. Warren Ave., visit www.thewright.org.