What Rachel Grady Found in Detroit

Published January 19, 2012

ABOVE: RACHEL GRADY AT SUNDANCE IN 2010

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s new documentary, Detropia, is a sobering film that examines Detroit as a microcosm of American history and identity. The documentary duo’s second film to premiere at Sundance (following Jesus Camp in 2007), Detropia leads us through majestic buildings turned vacant and crumbling, to Union meetings, where autoworkers grapple with yet another pay cut, and to the last performances at the Detroit Opera House. We are told that one family departs Detroit every 20 minutes; that 10,000 homes are being demolished. In short, Detropia is not exactly light-hearted family fun. But this is hardly surprising; while once a thriving metropolis, a promised land of prosperity for southern farm workers, and the home of Motown superstars, these are no longer the associations that come to mind at the mention of Detroit today. Detroit’s decay has popped up in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, Ben Hamper’s frightening memoire Rivethead, T.J. Sugrue’s college course staple The Origins of the Urban Crisis, and, of course, Eminem songs and 8 mile.

We spoke with one-half of the film’s directing team, Rachel Grady, about what she hopes Detropia will add to the public perception of the city, and how she stays objective when dealing with such an emotionally charged subject matter.

EMMA BROWN: Hi! I just saw Detropia.

RACHEL GRADY: You saw it? Oh cool! What did you think? We just finished it.

BROWN: It was heartbreaking.

GRADY: Yeah, it’s very sad, but I hope that the characters leave some hope with you, because they do with me. They’re so strong.

BROWN: That just made it all the more disheartening! How did you first become involved in documentary filmmaking and working with your partner, Heidi?

GRADY: We met working for another filmmaker and I just thought [making documentaries] would be the coolest, best job in the world, and it kind of is! It’s sort of like being a journalist: you get to change your topics; it’s an education on so many different things all the time. And that’s great for curious and short attention span-type people like myself.

BROWN: [laughs] I can relate to that! What made you choose Detroit as a subject?

GRADY: A few reasons; it’s my co-director’s home turf, she grew up outside of Detroit, her family was born and raised in Detroit and she saw it happen before her eyes and told me about it. Then I had to go there a few times for work, it’s shocking, it totally blew me away.

BROWN: What struck you the most?

GRADY: I didn’t understand where the people were! It was empty, and that is a very strange thing for a modern metropolis with skyscrapers. [The city] is 140 square miles, it’s huge, and it’s lost half of its population so it just feels deserted. The question begged was “Why?” It seems so sudden, although [the exodus of people] was in huge spurts, it feels abandoned.

BROWN: The devolution of Detroit is not a new topic—what did you hope to add to people’s understanding of what’s going on?

GRADY: The humanity, that’s what we were hoping to bring to it; the people who are still reeling from what has happened to their city, their identity. I see [Detropia] as a film that makes people question the American identity: what we are going to be, what we are going to call ourselves, how we are going to act and how we are going to treat each other in the next 100 years. You see the history of the United States in the city—it was short, it was dramatic, our arc was pointed and volatile and Detroit very much embodies that. I think it’s a very relevant place.

BROWN: How did you find your subjects?

GRADY: We just canvassed the city. Heidi’s from there, so we had a base of names and numbers, friends of friends, and we just started talking to people. Good old-fashioned journalism.

BROWN: Your past documentaries have been praised for the “even-handed” manner in which you present your subjects, especially your more controversial subjects such as the Pentecostal children’s ministers in Jesus Camp. You meet people at such vulnerable points in their lives, how do you manage to stay uninvolved?

GRADY: It’s a matter of trying to get to the story that people want to tell. You don’t have to prod much, people will tell the story that they think is important, and that’s the story you should be telling, not the one that you think is important. [Our subjects] have much more interesting things to say about the issue, so just let them go, create an environment that is comfortable and let them be themselves, and you will always you get your strongest material. 

BROWN: Are people generally willing to be interviewed, or are they quite wary when you first approach them?

GRADY: They were cautious, for sure. [Detroit] has become a punchline; it’s synonymous with a lot of modern-day things that are not very flattering, and it was synonymous with the best things that America had to offer when it was doing well.  I think that it feels a little used and there was a wariness. But we share our former work with people and try and let people know that we don’t have a strong agenda, that we are willing to be wrong. We went to Detroit looking for a phoenix-from-the-ashes story; I wanted to tell that story, everyone wants to tell that story, but the film that we made isn’t really that because that’s not the story that our characters are interested in telling. You have to be flexible to a changing narrative, even if that makes you feel bad.

BROWN: One of the threads in Detropia focuses on this hipster-artist couple, who move to the city because of its low cost. They are such a stark contrast to the people you interview who have always lived in the city.

GRADY: We had read that story before we went to Detroit, it’s a very popular story line, four or five big articles have been written about the artist coming to Detroit. It’s an optimistic story and people are looking for optimism there. We feel like in our film that it represents an appropriate measure of its relevance. It’s in there, but not overwhelmingly [so]. It’s a kiss.

BROWN: Do you find it difficult to keep your documentaries timely and pertinent? There must be such a lag between when you decide on an idea and when the film is released.

GRADY: There has to be some luck; you can’t rush it just because you are nervous. It took us a year to edit [Detropia] and it was literally as fast as we could go. Hopefully people are interested in talking about [Detropia‘s subject matter]; it’s a phrase used by politicians and the media for the last twenty years, “The death of the middle class.” It’s a mantra.  I don’t think people have been listening; I think it goes in to one ear and out of the other, and hopefully right now is the time when phrase is really starting to resonate with a huge part of the population, because the majority of the population is middle-class. And now people are starting to realize, “Oh, they are talking about me!”

BROWN: When you’re editing a film, are you influenced by current events?

GRADY: Absolutely. You don’t want to get too influenced, but with this film I was better able to understand the news that were going on because of the material I had gathered. The death of the middle class really rings differently and it starts to feel really real.

BROWN: Do you view yourself as journalist, an anthropologist or something else entirely?

GRADY: I would say journalist, anthropologist, filmmaker all in once. Heidi would probably say she identified differently, it’s a personal choice. But anthropologist, journalist, filmmaker, what could be cooler than that?

DETROPIA PREMIERES THIS SATURDAY AT SUNDANCE.