Filmmakers see Detroit as test case for ideas on urban revival
BY JOHN GALLAGHER • FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER • July 14, 2009
Studying Detroit and its problems appears to be a growth industry.
This spring and summer, the British Broadcasting Corp. and the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service were filming documentaries about the plight of Detroit and the city's hopes for a revival. A gaggle of other documentarians and journalists were doing the same.
Local experts say Detroit has achieved something unique. It has become the test case for all sorts of theories on urban decay and all sorts of promising ideas about reviving shrinking cities.
"It's unbelievable," said Sue Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association, who has been interviewed recently by two separate PBS crews and an Austrian journalist writing about Detroit.
"All of us have been inundated with all of these people who somehow think that because we're so bottomed out and so weak-market, that this is this incredible opportunity," Mosey said.
Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who has been interviewed by numerous visitors, echoed that sentiment.
"They realize that there is an interesting story to tell, that has real characters, but even more, they discover a place that is simply not like everywhere else," he said.
Projects in the works
In addition to the BBC and PBS documentaries, Detroit is the focus of several other projects, among them:
• A young French independent filmmaker, Florent Tillon, shot footage around downtown last week for his documentary about Detroiters coping with unprecedented change.
• San Diego State film student Amy Sheppell captured scenes at the Earthworks Urban Farm on Detroit's east side on a Saturday in late June, part of a feature she's shooting on urban agriculture.
• Heike Warmuth, the U.S. correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Der Kurier, was in town in early June conducting interviews for a feature story on the city.
These and other filmmakers and journalists were drawn not by Michigan's lucrative film tax credit, which doesn't apply to the work they do, but by the urgency of Detroit itself, said Tillon.
Tillon is raising about $40,000 to spend on his film, which he hopes to market through a French production company. He expects to make little, if any, profit. "I don't think about money," he said.
George Hencken, a producer for BBC, said her documentary focuses on the auto industry and its relationship to Detroit and its people. The film is to run on the BBC in November.
"Why Detroit? Because the influence of Detroit, both musically and through the cars that still symbolize the American dream, has reached throughout the world," she said. "And now as the city struggles with a post-industrial, post-urban future, it could be a model for issues that will affect urban centers across the globe."
Sheppell found that Detroit's growing number of community gardens offered the most material for her feature on urban farming.
"I filmed in San Diego, New York and here to compare what urban agriculture could mean to each community," she said. "So far, it seems that in Detroit, it could really mean the most to this city, providing local food for its citizens and hopefully providing more of a community feeling and more of an economy."
Detroit's status as the nation's poster child of urban decay no doubt draws many filmmakers, said George Steinmetz, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan who released his own film about Detroit's past a few years ago.
Steinmetz said ruins such as the Michigan Central Station fascinate people on a deeply psychological level. That helps explain this year's focus on Detroit. The city offers many different meanings.
"Ruins," he said, "become a metaphor for the kind of struggle between life and death."
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