Requiem for Detroit? Film review + musings on urban agriculture as art

14 Apr

From 'Detroit in Ruins' by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The important thing about this film is the question mark at the end of its title. At first, watching Requiem for Detroit? (2010) was like taking a walk through a post apocalytpic novel. With a soundtrack that crams in all the musical references you’d expect from a film about this particular city, directed by music video and documentary man Julien Temple. That’s how I felt anyway when I watched it with barely woken eyes at 10am at the Rich Mix for 6 Billion Ways. But then I gave it more thought, and I realised (or maybe read into it), that it’s actually quite a positive film about creativity. Although it starts off with insightful post capitalist wasteland-esque gloom, it leaves its audience with a strong sense of the utterly inspirational burgeoning creativity (artistic, musical and urban-agricultural) of Detroit’s pioneering citizens, old and new.

From 'Detroit in Ruins' by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The film opens with vintage news reels about early 20th Century Detroit as the ‘city of champions’. As the original home of US car manufacture in 1903, Henry Ford’s production line car and consumer revolution, then later Chrylser and GM Motors, Detroit was indeed once an economic champion, a real life dazzling unfolding of the American Dream. A mixture of interviews and excellent archive footage projected onto the walls of Detroit’s many deserted buildings takes us from this economic boom, when waves of migration from all over the US flooded to work in the factories and enjoy the city’s diverse cultural life, to the Detroit of today. The film’s interviewees, musicians and artists describe their pasts working at the automobile assembly lines, and their nights spent in the midst of Detroit’s jazz, Motown and liquor infused hey day. But as they take us through what happened next, the syphoning out of wealth by the huge car corporations, the recession of the 30s, the petrol crises of the 70s, the racism, the police and the riots, Detroit emerges in the 21st century as a semi deserted victim of the shattered empty promises of mega corporate capitalism.

From 'Detroit in Ruins' by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Detroit’s various facets are explored via journeys through the city’s grey and brown crumbling toxic factories and long disused grand hotels, its contrastingly manicured pastel coloured suburbs, and downtown neighbourhood ruins engulfed in trees. Local ‘urban explorers’ act as our guides through this surreal landscape. The images of nature taking over the ruins, factories, hotels and houses bring to mind, as one resident puts it, the notion that our grip on the planet is very tenuous. But there is something comforting about that. Nature can still take over where we leave off, fail, or change our minds. Still, poetic musings on nature aside, high illiteracy rates (47%), constant school closures and zero employment do not an easy life for people make. In the words of a former Detroit inmate, ‘abnormal behaviour in an abnormal context is normal’; in this uniquely weird place, young people burning down houses to pass the time (there are 70 fires a night), isn’t that strange.

From 'Detroit in Ruins' by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

But creativity can come into its own where ‘normality’ leaves off. The film’s conclusion is drawn from artists and urban agriculture pioneers, sitting round a campfire in the middle of the city. They’re a mixture of old school Detroit residents, originally farmers of the South who came to Detroit to work the assembly lines, and new arty kids who see Detroit as the perfect place to start their inspired, community-serving creative ideas from scratch. The consensus seems to be that cottage industries, creating space for small scale urban farming, and using the city’s unique landscape as the basis for art, are the economic future of Detroit. As one of the older women interviewed in the film concludes, to think that the answer to civilization is a few decades of mass production and corporations is childish. We need to get back to being super imaginative, motivated and practical within the finite physical confines of our planet. The fact that the film combines its conclusion with musings on how to find opportunity and thrive in a post industrial landscape, and that it includes urban agriculture as part of the creative process, means its relevance goes far beyond the confines of this one particular, but very special, city.


Since I watched that film, I’ve also seen this short documentary by Johnny Knoxville. It gives Detroit’s background, but focuses on the entrepreneurial opportunities of community-focused creative work in a city that’s ‘had it’s heart ripped out’. Worth a look:

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