BRIAN LAMB: Heidi Ewing at what point did you decide to do a documentary on Detroit?
HEIDI EWING, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: Well, around I’m originally from the area. I was born and raised in the Detroit area. So there was definitely a personal connection there. I had never considered making a film in Detroit or a film with any personal ties to myself whatsoever.
But my co-director and I, Rachel, started talking about the city of Detroit in late 2008, because I would return home and things really seemed to be getting worse and worse. And it was already bad when I grew up there in the 80s. So to see the crisis sort of spread out further and further into the suburbs and a lot of people I knew were leaving.
And we started discussing, ”What was the future of this place? What would it look like?” And then in October of 2009, I came with my crew for three days, just as an experiment, and filmed in the city just as an outsider. And talked to a few people, and was absolutely riveted to riveted by the people and the place and I thought, ”There is definitely a movie here. I’m not sure what it is, but we need to make a film in Detroit.”
LAMB: What impact did I read that your father had an impact on you watching him and his businesses over the years.
EWING: That’s right. My father had a manufacturing company, actually it’s still it has survived. It does fine. And he really, you know, like everyone else in the 80’s with the rise of Japan, really had to innovate and come up with new ideas and he stopped making just nuts and bolts and started making very difficult to create products. He started engineering complicated things that couldn’t be replicated or stolen or easily, you know, made overseas.
And so that’s how his business survived. So I kind of had a front row seat to what it was like as American manufacturer growing up in the 80s and how he survived is really an interesting lesson because it was all about being nimble and agile and innovative, which is what I think Detroit needs and which is what I think the rest of the country pretty much needs right now.
LAMB: How much of his business partners over the years or his friends and all around Detroit moved out of there to Mexico or some other place other than the United States?
EWING: Well my dad ran the business with his brothers, with his two brothers, so they were adamant to keep their products made in the United States. However, I would say that vast majority, something like 60 percent of my father’s colleagues, went out of business in the 80s and early 90s because, partly because of it was just cheaper to make things overseas. Absolutely.
LAMB: How many documentaries have you done already before this one?
EWING: Wow, a lot. I’ve been making my business partner, Rachel, and I have been making films for over 10 years. This is our fifth documentary feature for theaters but we’ve also made a lot of small and large television projects for HBO and A&E. And we make our living in the nonfiction world, which is rare and lucky.
LAMB: Where are you based?
EWING: New York City, Lower East Side.
LAMB: Which of those 10 documentaries made it biggest?
EWING: Jesus Camp. We made a film called Jesus Camp which not only was nominated for the Academy Award. We lost to Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth. It was a terrible year to be nominated for an Oscar. We all knew we were going to lose. But, you know, it was a film that not only got nominated for an Oscar but that really, really sort of struck a nerve.
It was really a look at the evangelical right through the eyes of children who attend a summer camp and are being home schooled in creationism, et cetera. And it was really, at the time in 2007, a real window into this world that heretofore hadn’t really been investigated. And we didn’t pass judgment on the kids or the families in the film.
That’s not what we do. But it really was just sort of eye opening for a lot of people to realize to sort of put a face to this sort of nameless, you know, Christian right that people were referring to and people were saying, ”Oh, the Christian right is responsible for electing George Bush,” et cetera.
It just became this, this title, this name and for us we went in and we meet these children and their families. And we realized pretty quickly that these were the so-called foot soldiers for the right wing of the Republican Party, but they were also just believers and religious people, and, you know, going to the beat of their own drum. So, really, it was eye-opening for us and we really tried to just paint the picture of how things are with these communities without passing any judgment.
LAMB: I saw that documentary and my question as I was watching it is: why did this camp let you in?
EWING: They’re proud of what they do. The families are very proud how they raise their kids, Becky Fischer who is head of the camp thinks believes very strongly that she’s saving lives, that she’s saving souls, that she’s bringing children to the Lord. And these people are believers. And actually when we went to each, each family’s home long before the film premiered.
We make it our business to go and show the final film to the subjects of our films and the first thing Becky Fischer, the head of the camp, said was, ”You kind of watered it down. No one is going to watch this. It’s so boring.” And I said, ”Becky, I come to you from a secular planet. You have to listen to me. People are not going to just you know turn this off or not talk about it. You know this is considered not, I won’t say the word radical, but this is considered hard-core faith and belief especially with the Pentecostal, speaking in tongues, that aspect of it.”
And she was just like, ”All right, well, that’s fine.” And all of the parents and kids loved the film. And we’re still in touch with everybody. So they felt like it was an accurate representation of their lives, and it is. And really these strong reactions came from the outside, from people who wanted to find fault with what they were doing. And I thought that was very interesting. Actually I became much more tolerant person and a much bigger protector of freedom of religion and speech after making that movie, because I saw how some of the kids and some of the families were ridiculed and terrible things were written about them in the blogsphere.
Thank God it wasn’t today because it was really pre-Twitter and all of that. But I was really alarmed by some of the reactions to be honest with you. We hadn’t really expected that.
LAMB: So why documentaries? What, what’s the motivation? How much of it is a business versus you just like this medium?
EWING: It is a terrible business to be in so if I were financially motivated I definitely would be doing something else like reality television, God forbid, or something like that. So really, no one gets into documentary motivated by the business allure or the financial allure. Although, we do make a living at it, a fine living at it, but really it’s, Rachel and I, my co-director and I we share an incredible curiosity, insatiable curiosity to learn and it’s this incredible gift that we’re given to be able to pick up the phone, knock on someone’s door, go to someone’s community and say, ”Hi, please talk to me because I’m trying to tell this story.”
So we end up meeting people and experiencing things that most people never will. And that we never would. So part of it is a little bit selfish because you’re exposed to the world, and especially our country because we focus mainly on domestic issues, almost exclusively. And so we do it because it becomes an addictive thing. You just want to know more. And then the more you learn, the less you know, you know how that goes.
And you never run out of topics and I can’t imagine that any scripted film, people would say the kind of things that they say in real life. In fact, with Detropia, with our new film, audiences had asked, ”Is anything scripted in the film?” And I’m always surprised by the question because the answer is of course, ”No way!” But some of the things that are said, are so pithy or so right on or so insightful by just regular people that people just can’t believe what they’re hearing.
LAMB: How did you get the money?
EWING: For which one?
EWING: For Detropia, Detropia actually was sort of easy to finance, strangely. We were, we pitched the film, took about six months to raise the money, but our two major partners were the Ford Foundation, who not Ford Motor Company, Ford Foundation in New York, that obviously has ties to Detroit and works in Detroit and has initiatives in the city of Detroit and also has a large film arm called Just Films. So they were our major financer of the film and also PBS, in the form of ITVS which gives the money on behalf of PBS, was our second biggest funder.
And then there’s an amalgam of other funders, a private family foundation named Vital Projects, the Sundance Documentary Fund kicked in a little bit of money, and Impact Partners which is an equity organization that supports philanthropic, you know, documentary films. And the collection of us together they, they financed the film. No one had editorial control, so that was one of the deals that we had.
So we, we were able to raise the money without having to make promises to anyone, which including PBS, including our eventual broadcaster, which for us was paramount to making this film.
LAMB: Dave Bing is the mayor of Detroit. People remember him as a national ...
EWING: Great basketball.
LAMB: .... basketball association, Detroit Pistons ....
EWING: That’s right.
LAMB: ... Washington Bullets, Boston Celtics, what kind of a mayor is he?
EWING: He’s a clean mayor. He’s an honest mayor. There is a history of corruption and all kinds of business with some of the city council and the mayors of Detroit, I don’t think it’s a secret, including Kwame Kilpatrick, the most recent mayor, who’s now on trial.
LAMB: That has served in prison already too.
EWING: That’s correct. And so Detroit has just come out of a feeling, a sense of being abandoned, betrayed, and tricked by their previous mayor. I think most Detroiters would say that Kwame tricked them. And so Dave Bing was really the right answer to Kwame. Dave Bing has the most thankless job in America. It is the problems this man has, has been saddled with are almost insurmountable.
The city almost declared bankruptcy in April and very nearly averted it by going into a consent agreement with the state so Republican Governor Snyder and Mayor Bing are basically co-managing the finances of Detroit.
It’s a very slow recovery financially. There’s still talk of a possible takeover by the state. It would be the largest city ever taken over by a state. Stockton, California looks like right now it might be the largest at 300,000 people. But I Mayor Bing is an honest man. I don’t know if he’s a fantastic charismatic leader, you know, I think that Detroiters like people with a little bit of swagger and attitude and to be very forthright; I think as a mayor he’s been kept things closer to the vest than most Detroiters are used to.
LAMB: Let’s look at a little bit of your film. Obviously it’s, it’s a commercial product and you’re selling it and we’re just going to show bits and pieces of it.
LAMB: But just before we go on, if people want to see this or they want to see Jesus Camp or any of your other documentaries, how can they get them?
EWING: Well Detropia is playing in theaters across the country right now. It’s in over 50 cities and if people go to detropiathefilm.com they can see if it’s in their city. But it’s in all the major markets and secondary markets, D.C., New York, L.A., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, et cetera. And so it’s probably it’s a very cinematic experience. I hope people see it on the big screen. All of the other films you can see on Netflix, or online, go to our website, Loki Films.
And this film Detropia also in around January will be on DVD.
LAMB: All right here’s, we’ll just run this opening and explain what’s going on here.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: This is the downsizing Detroit, you’re watching it live. One of 10,000 homes that they are trying to get done in the next four years over the course of the four years of Mayor Bing’s term. These are houses that are never coming back. Bill Koresky with Able Demo, these, these houses are not coming back. There’s no people to live in them.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: No, not right now, no. Let’s see, there’s one family every 20 minutes moving out.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Moving out of Detroit. It, it’s going back to the prairie and these houses are just disappearing from the landscape.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: Yes, they say there’s 90,000 right now ready to go.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: Every day, nonstop. Every day, get ’em done, get another list. Get ’em done, get another list.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Man.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: Oh, yes. So I think we’ve got, I forgot how many we got right here, like, I know we’ve got like 11 on this street.
LAMB: This is early in the documentary, why?
EWING: It was, it’s very early, it’s very early in the film, it’s very important to set the stage to, you know, acclimate the audience to the situation we’re dealing with, that Detroit is dealing with. We chose a scene that is played out many, many, many times all day long all over the place in every season. So we didn’t start with something that was so provocative that you, we only, we happened to capture it. This is something that we saw hundreds and hundreds of times happening.
You almost don’t see it any more when you drive through Detroit. There’s always a building coming down and these buildings really must come down because they’re not being occupied, they’re dangerous structures, there’s drug activity inside the city is doing what it must. It’s still alarming at first to see there’s so much going away.
LAMB: You point out that Detroit used to have close to 2 million people and now it’s got 700,000. What happened to the population?
EWING: The population, well you know many people people left. They didn’t all leave the state. At least 1 million moved to the suburbs of Detroit, including my parents who are part of that so-called ”White Flight” out of Detroit after the riots in 1967. But the truth is that there were already riots in Detroit in 1943.
And the population was never that comfortable with the arrival of so many African Americans from the south who came for the good jobs, for the jobs when, when Detroit became the arsenal of democracy and started, you know, becoming the center of the war machine in World War II even more people that had already come, had already started the great migration to work in the factories. More and more people came and the white population was never that comfortable with that. So segregation is a very real part of the Detroit past.
And so the exodus had already started really in the 40s and 50s. And then with the riots it just was really almost the final point.
LAMB: At 82 percent plus African Americans in Detroit, it is the most African American city in the United States? Is it?
EWING: I’m not quite sure it’s up there. I’m not sure if it’s the number one I’m not exactly sure. What’s Washington D.C.?
LAMB: No, it’s much lower than that.
EWING: Is it?
LAMB: Yes, I think it’s down and close to 60, 55 percent.
EWING: Aha, I believe it’s one of the top, yes.
LAMB: The reason I ask that is, as you went about your task, white woman, partner, white woman director, what was the reaction to you?
EWING: Well our, one of our, one of our cinematographers is African American so we are a bit of a mixed crew. You know Detroiters are salty and weary and don’t suffer fools and race is always just under the surface in every conversation, in every interaction. I was aware of that being from there. So, I just would sort of bring it up right away and explain very quickly that I was raised in Farmington Hills and my parents were Detroiters, my grandma was a Detroiter.
She hung on until the end and then couldn’t walk up her stairs and had to, had to move. And I just sort of address it right away. I know what you’re thinking, a girl from the suburbs, I don’t live here anymore. I went to Mercy High School. Let’s get all out of the way, you know, and but I would spend my weekends in Detroit, and you know I, I know the city but I’m really an outsider and a little bit of an insider.
And I would just acknowledge it right away. And so we could talk about it, you know just pretending that there’s not some kind of racial divider, pretending that we are exactly the same is foolhardy. And Detroiters don’t appreciate it, so we just addressed it.
LAMB: You took your cameras in to watch Mayor Bing and some urban planners talk about the future?
EWING: That’s right.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: What we’re seeing is that virtually the entire city is illustrating some level of population decline. Over the last 50 years we’ve lost about 50 percent of our population. If, if we were at about 1.86 million in 1955, we’re arguably somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 today within a city of the same size. You know, as the population plummets, the number of jobs is actually decreasing even more. I think you’re probably up into the 50 percent real unemployment in the city.
DETROIT MAYOR DAVID BING: Even though you may have some Detroiters that get a job in Detroit, once they get to a certain level of income, they get the hell out of town too, so, you know that seems to be the direction that a lot of folks are taking. But the reality of think, thinking that we’re going to repopulize (sic) this area in significant numbers any time in the near term, I don’t see that as my reality. When do we think we’ll be able to identify those neighborhoods we deem to be stable where you really want to make new investments?
We have to start doing something. That’s got to happen otherwise you’re going to, we’ll lose the people.
LAMB: A part of what I noticed in watching the documentary is it’s dark. You don’t seem to use much artificial light and you certainly didn’t in there, I assume.
EWING: We don’t use lights at all. It’s all natural light. That was a very dark space unfortunately. We didn’t do that on purpose. But you know there is a quality to that scene that is hunkering down trying to solve the problem, leaning in, ”What are we going to do? This is what we’re dealt with.”
So, in a way the look fit well with this particular scene because the city is trying to figure out what to do and these problems are multifaceted. And they’re trying the best they can, but there’s only so much an administration can do in light of this, this kind of breadth of problem.
LAMB: How did you pick the people you featured?
EWING: It was very difficult. We met so many people, Detroiters, you know. We, we would start by asking some, you know some reporters and some friends and we’d say, ”If you were making a film in Detroit, who are the 10 people that you absolutely would not miss?” You know, ”Who are we going to miss that we shouldn’t miss?” And we would get their list of 10, we’d go to those 10 et cetera.
So we ended up meeting many hundreds of people and eventually we sorted out the chorus of people that we thought could best tell the story and who we ended up filming mainly are Detroiters who, middle class Detroiters who could leave, but have chosen not to. The majority of our characters really could go. Actually there was a poll taken two days ago in the Detroit News, very startling poll, that people responded to and said 50 percent of Detroiters, if they could leave tomorrow, would leave.
And 40 percent say they intend to leave in the next five years. So the exodus has, has not stopped. There are newcomers but it has not bottomed out in terms of people that want to leave. So what, it makes it even more significant that the people that we chose for some reason, for one reason or the other, feel that Detroit needs them and they’re going to stay.
LAMB: What, you mentioned this earlier, what impact did the riots of 1967 have on the city?
EWING: I think that the riots, I think, you don’t want to overstate it, because like I said there have been riots in the past. But really it was pretty devastating, partly, because it was never dealt with soon after. The next administrations coming in, didn’t really deal with the racial divide.
The city-suburban divide was really cemented there and there is so much resentment even from you know my aunts and uncles and people that are older than, the way they talk about Detroit is sometimes it’s, it’s not really with derision but there’s still anger there because that was their city and they feel in some way that they weren’t, that they had to leave or, I mean there’s a lot of miscommunication and those Detroiters who have stayed resent those that have left. Are you with us? Are you against us?
There’s still that very, very strong divider and I really haven’t seen it anywhere else in the country. I’d say the impact was pretty, was pretty heavy.
LAMB: Statistics that I found: 43 killed. How many were there, 400 and some injured...?
LAMB: .... and then 7,000 arrested in that
LAMB: 82ND Airborne was shutting....
EWING: National Guard had to come in, tanks in the streets, we have some footage of that in the film.
LAMB: I want to show you though, something that you haven’t seen. It was an interview that, it popped up in an interview some months ago here with a professor out at American University, a fellow named Clarence Lusane, and he was there. So just, this is brief. Let’s watch this.
PROFESSOR CLARENCE LUSANE: It started on a Saturday night and we had spent all day Saturday in Canada, often people in Detroit crossed the bridge and go fishing. And when we got back there was a full-blown riot going on. And it was a very, very hot evening, I was probably about 12 or so then, and nobody was inside. And at one point my mother, my sister and I walked down a couple of blocks to this sort of main intersection where there were just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people.
And after being there for a while, a car drove up and two white men got out, and fired at the corner. They lifted their shotgun and fired. And everyone on the corner, let’s see, there was probably about 20 people, everybody was hit except for me. My mother was shot. My sister was shot. Some of the injuries were more serious than others but everybody was, you know people were bleeding and there was of course panic.
LAMB: Yes, and I those statistics are 10, 10 of the people, 10 or 12 of the people killed were white and the rest were black. What, how much money has been, federal money has been sent in to Detroit, and state money to try to rebuild it, and what impact did it have?
EWING: Well, I, I can’t give you the exact number but there’s a lot of efforts right now not just from the state and the federal government but actually there’s so many sort of NGOs. There’s so many foundations. Every foundation you can think of has set up in Detroit. You know how you people refer to certain, certain places and, around the world as, as an NGO you know hot spot.
LAMB: Non-government organizations.
EWING: Yes, it’s like that but with the foundation. Everyone has their pet project. Everyone has their pet neighborhood, their initiative, be it education, be it urban farming. Everyone has sort of descended upon Detroit because some find it an interesting petri dish because they feel like Detroit will try again right now because it’s hit such bottom. Other people you know feel that it’s you know it’s their, it’s their responsibility as foundations to assist the people, the poverty.
It’s a very, very high, a very, very low performing school system. There is a high rate of illiteracy. There is something for every foundation in Detroit. And just recently actually you mentioned federal funding, 164 firefighters were laid off as part of this sort of downsizing, as part of this, this effort for Mayor Bing to get the finances under control in the city.
So firefighters which Detroit needs because it’s sort of the high, I think it must have the highest case of arson in the country. These guys are laid off. About two weeks later, miraculously 100 guys are rehired. And when you look to find out where that money came from, it was actually the Department of Homeland Security has a fund for things like that. And I don’t want to you know over state but I was, that’s cause, that’s when you want to think about the Department of Homeland Security needed to step in to keep Detroit as safe as it can be for the moment. It could be a lot safer.
But so we’re talking about, I wonder and I wondered making this film. We’ve seen the auto industry bail out. We’ve seen the bank bail out. Are we heading into an era of bail outs of cities. Is there such a thing as a failed city? We talk about failed states and are we looking at a slew of bailouts that federal government is going to have to step in for many municipalities that are on the brink.
It’s not just Detroit. And that is really, really one of the messages of the film. When we’ve got no tax base, when you’ve got a recession, with the housing bubble, et cetera, a lot of our urban centers just can’t pay the bills and can’t pick up the trash and can’t protect the people. So Detroit in so many ways is interesting to look at is the possibility for several other urban centers in this country.
LAMB: Back to your Detropia documentary, a fellow named George McGregor before we show George McGregor, how did you find him.
EWING: George is amazing. He is the President of Local 22, UAW. And his guys work at the Detroit/Hamtramck plant for General Motors. I found him because of a tavern owner that we were filming was hoping that the Chevy Volt, which was being made up the street, would help bring his business back with the new shifts. So we went up to the plant and found out who was in charge and then we found George McGregor.
LAMB: Here he is.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Guys, uh, senior quality mechanical technicians. Any of you guys that’s 18.50 an hour right now, they would be going down to $18.00 for 50 cents decrease in pay. But all the guys in plant seven that are making $17.00 they want to move them down to $14.50 which is a loss of $2.50 an hour on the wage. For factory support, which is the guys that are making $14.35, their new proposal is $11.00 a hour which means they would lose $3.35 an hour on their wage.
GEORGE MCGREGOR, PRESIDENT OF LOCAL 22, UAW: I asked her, I say, ”How do I sat down with one of my members who is already scuffling and making 14.35 sit at the table with their family and got to tell them that my Union and I agree to take a $3.35 pay cut?” I asked her that.
I said, ”I told you guys we’re going, if we negotiate any kind of agreement it’s going to be a livable wage.” What did she tell us about livable wage they call?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: ”I don’t care about your guys having a livable wage.”
MCGREGOR: Point blank.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: I mean why? To beat us down? What, I mean this is ridiculous to
MCGREGOR: To humiliate us.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: Why?
MCGREGOR: To humiliate us.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: Why, what good is that? What, what do you think you’re going to feel every day going into work? They don’t care. That’s the biggest problem.
LAMB: How much do they blame the North America Free Trade Agreement for this?
EWING: There is a lot of talk of NAFTA. They’re still chewing over NAFTA in Detroit, more than any place else.
LAMB: But I mean a lot of these, this plant that they’re talking about shuts down.
EWING: Yes and it goes, and basically the men are rehired in Mexico. American Axle moved all of its operations to Mexico. It already moved most of it’s operations and then this was sort of the last plant that was opened and when you look at what the employees are making in the Mexican plant, I believe it’s $3.52 an hour all in. So there was no wage that these guys could have actually accepted I believe that would have convinced or persuaded this company to stay and therein lies the real conversation.
We need to bring corporate America to the table in some kind of way because if it’s just going to be on price, then everyone will just get laid off because these guys can’t live on $3.52. So and this sort of articulates, in a visual way, what that looks like, what you hear about you know with both candidates right now, the shrinking of the middle class. I’m for the middle class. The middle class is going away. But you know what does that actually mean. What does that look like?
And so in Detroit I’m making this film, Detropia, we sort of experienced what that looks and feels like from people who are experiencing it and that’s what you see in that scene.
LAMB: Both Democrats and Republicans passed NAFTA.
LAMB: Both liberals and conservatives supported NAFTA. What’s the solution? I mean is there enough money in the federal till to bail out Detroit?
Ewing: I don’t think there is enough there might be enough money in the federal till to bail out Detroit. But I don’t know if there is enough money in the federal till to bail out all of the other cities that are going to be lining up behind Detroit. And of course that’s really not the optimal solution.
The one party I could not get to speak to me at all in making this film was any representative from any of the corporations, which was very sad for me because again I think that’s sort of the missing element. We need to figure out, you know, you want to pursue some of these corporations that, you know, you want to give them incentives to stay. You want in Detroit you, you know I think should really, really be seducing businesses to come. There is a lot of land. There is a lot of people out of work. Tax incentives to get them to come.
That would be wonderful but you also need some sort of assurance that you know these companies are basically decimating the people that would eventually buy their products because there is not going to be anyone left to afford them. So I just feel like there is not really a conversation happening.
How do we keep the corporations here? You know, how do we make that happen? I would like to hear that because there, they continue to leave in droves.
LAMB: I should say if you watch the full documentary there is a lot of music, not a narrator, and so we’re not giving the people the feeling of the documentary like you did.
EWING: The tone.
LAMB: Let me run a little more of George McGregor from your documentary and see what he has to say.
MCGREGOR: Now we can’t even buy American-made washing machine, or an iron. So where did all, where did all of our manufacturing base go? Where’d it all go? Because we built everything. We built everything. Everything. America did. We have a standard of living in America that the working guy provided. A standard of living. Which is eroding now, but it’s a standard of living that the working guy and it started right here in Detroit.
Right here in Detroit, a middle class, it started right here. Everybody know it. We just got to face up to it. So we’re able to send our kids to school. We’re able to save up a little bit of money. Some of our guys are even able to get a little place up north or whatever. Middle class. Got a boat. You understand what I’m saying? Middle class. Middle class.
LAMB: Is there anything that people like George McGregor or the UAW in general did wrong over the years that led to this?
EWING: Absolutely. I think that there is a lot of blame to go around. You know the Unions are not blameless in this. There was definitely a time that they had a lot of extras going on. I mean actually George described in the, we weren’t able to use it in the film, but he described a program called the Homework Hotline. So that every employee’s child at General Motors could call a 24-hour hotline and get help with their homework. And there was someone who would help them with it.
Now that’s really nice. But that costs money, and the vacation days, the sick leave, there were people, there were people in the past that did fall down on the job. It was too hard to fire people. I mean there was a time, for sure, where it was too bloated and so was management. You know taking sort of producing subpar cars and paying themselves too much. I mean overall the industry behaved as a cartel at times, refusing to make small cars, saying you could never make money on small cars.
Meanwhile, Honda and Toyota proved them wrong and we lost the marketshare. So many mistakes were made, but I have to say you know we did learn making this film of course just the basics which is you know after the bail out, UAW did agree to take a 50 percent wage cut for all the new hires. So at incoming wage went from $28 to $14. So I feel at this point it has slimmed down. It’s gotten leaner and I think the UAW has taken its lumps.
And I don’t know if that will be enough to, they say the industry is roaring back, but we’ll never regain the marketshare that we lost, I don’t believe. And it’s, you know, it’s funny because people say well, you know they say that the auto industry is posting these huge profits but we don’t really understand that that does not translate into a mass amount of jobs anymore.
So in terms of employment they will never be able to employ the way they use to. We need a new industry.
LAMB: Where did you get your training for this?
EWING: Making documentaries?
EWING: Just doing it. You know I didn’t go to film school. I went to Georgetown here in D.C. I went to Georgetown School of Foreign Service and I got the film bug, I joined a film society with some friends and we started making some movies and I changed my mind and decided I would be a terrible diplomat. And instead of trying to join the State Department I moved to Los Angeles and worked. I apprenticed for years for other filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, always nonfiction, and people made documentaries usually come at it, are, the community really comes at it from a variety of backgrounds.
Very few of us took the film school route because you need sort of an investigative sense. You need patience. You need to be a good listener to conduct a good interview. You need to be persuasive. You need to have an ear for material, an eye for material. So it’s an amalgam of skills.
LAMB: How many hours did you shoot?
EWING: Too many 500 hours on this one. We were there for a year and a half.
LAMB: And how did you meet Rachel Grady?
EWING: Rachel and I met at a company called Gabriel Films in New York. We were working on another producer and we were asked to produce a two-hour TV special on the Church of Scientology a long time ago. And nobody wanted to make the film because I think people were afraid of the Church of Scientology and we did it. And it was a fascinating experience and so we met on that film and in 2001 we started Loki Films in New York City, our own production company.
LAMB: OK, more from the, Detropia. By the way, who named it?
EWING: I did.
LAMB: And when did you get that?
EWING: A couple of weeks before Sundance. We, we didn’t have a title.
LAMB: Sundance the film festival?
EWING: Yes, we opened the film at Sundance in January and they needed a title because we had sent them a cut and with a temporary title and we couldn’t figure out what to call it. And there’s a shot in the film where an auto parts store has been converted by an artist to read instead of auto parts, it reads Utopia. And a guy is walking by it and we started playing with the concept that Detroit was a utopia for many. And we started combining the words.
LAMB: This next clip is about scrap metal. How and a bunch of guys standing around....
EWING: Illegal scrappers.
LAMB: And how does it, where’d you run into that?
EWING: That was lucky for us in the sense that these guys are doing something illegal and they don’t you know come up and you know tell you, ”I want to be filmed.” We were driving one wintery night on our way somewhere else and I saw a blow sparks in this field, very, very strong orange flames and we stopped the car. And I said, ”I think these guys are taking down this building.” And we approached and somehow we were able to film the scene.
LAMB: OK, we’ll watch it.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Drugs and money.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: No one will mess with you around here.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Police came by earlier, just make sure we weren’t stealing nothing and we was careful. They said if they had any complaints they’d have to run us off. But we was, we was all right for now.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 3: Easy money.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: And the economy is shit.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 3: Can’t get a job.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: For this steel we’re getting 11 cent a pound, but if you’re taking copper, you get like $2.50 a pound.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: It goes somewhere and gets melted.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: It can go all over, wherever, it go wherever, China.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 1: Why is it going to China?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT 2: So they can make shit and send it back here and sell it for more.
LAMB: How does that work? How does it you know where is the money, how do they make money?
EWING: These guys know more about the price of metals on the international market than most people. They keep track of what the price of copper, steel, aluminum, and all the other metals is every single day. Obviously it goes up and down. And if the price is good enough they get up and they go and they try to find those metals from abandoned factories and homes and copper piping and things like that. And they take it to the scrap yard which closes at 10:00 p.m., that’s what they were, they were on their way.
And they weight it, they get their money, and they’re right, most of metals have been going abroad to help build the Chinese infrastructure and other, other places that need those metals especially copper because for telecommunications it’s crucial and it’s very expensive. So, basically these guys are, it’s the cleanup crew. And ...
LAMB: How much did, do you have any idea how much they made?
EWING: That night, that, it was a good take for them apparently. They each made 200 bucks. And there was like five of them.
LAMB: So they take the metal out of buildings?
EWING: Actually they had just, previously in the scene they had just taken down, we filmed them taking down what we found later was a Cadillac repair shop, a former Cadillac repair shop which was too, too devastating to put in the film. I just couldn’t put that information in there. But yes, they go into homes, I mean but mostly these guys go into abandoned buildings and abandoned structures.
You go into most of the structures in Detroit and the scrappers have already been there. They’ve removed all the pipes. They’ve removed all of the metals.
LAMB: Who are the Coys?
EWING: The Coys are the newcomers. Steve and Dorota Coy are a young couple in their late 20’s. They met in Hawaii and they moved to Detroit because they’re artists, they wanted to find a place they could afford. They heard it was urban and exciting and sort of Dodge City, anything goes. And Detroit is becoming an attractive place for people like them.
LAMB: So what, what are we going to see we see them in a building somewhere, where did you, how did you find them?
EWING: They were just, I found them, I forget how I found them, friends of friends of friends, and they basically are performance artists. They do graffiti art, installations. And they sort of, you know, take the structures of Detroit like many artists are sort of making them into their own personal art projects.
LAMB: Here is Steve and Dorota Coy.
STEVE COY, DETROIT RESIDENT: We had a project that we wanted to do like street art, public installation, and so we just started evaluating, we looked at Baltimore, we were looking into New York City, and Detroit came up. And I, and I knew that’s one thing Detroit had an abundance of was space and ware old warehouses. I feel like we’ve assimilated into that community of artists that are, that are moving here and coming here.
Yes, we bought just a couple of weeks ago, and we’re able to keep our studio because everything is so affordable.
Yes I just, Detroit is always constantly amazing me. I feel like this is, like it’s redefining what the value of things are, you know. 20, 20,000 you know $25,000 for an amazing loft? I don’t know, that just makes it accessible to people like me. I would never be able to afford to own a home as an artist. And here I am with a studio and an apartment in, in a major city you know functioning for like $700 or less a month.
We can, we can experiment here because if we fail, we haven’t really fallen anywhere.
LAMB: What’s your sense of how many people would do what they’re doing?
EWING: I think there’s been about 50,000 people that have come in the last five years.
LAMB: To Detroit?
EWING: I, I believe. I hope I didn’t get that number wrong. You’re going to have to double check it. But it’s hard to tell how many have come over the last five or, five years I think. I know that it’s been a 59 percent increase in a young population coming in the last five years to Detroit. They will they stay? I don’t know. A lot of them work in restaurants or coffee shops or don’t have to work because the rent is so cheap.
Will when they have children, will they send their children to those public schools? It’s a very unknown thing but it’s a very interesting trend because I think that what we’re seeing is young college educated mostly Caucasian kids who would’ve moved to Chicago or New York or Philadelphia or Los Angeles can’t afford it because they’re not finding employment. But a place like Detroit is a place that needs them. They can sort of make a mark. They can live for super cheap. They can have a loft. They can mingle with other people their own age.
So, there is a community growing and very, in very specific neighborhoods in midtown Detroit. And it is, it’s become a trendy thing. I just don’t know if it’s a trend that’s going to be long term.
LAMB: You said you grew up in Farmington Hills?
EWING: That’s right.
LAMB: What’s that like? How far is it from downtown Detroit?
EWING: Twenty-five minute drive from downtown Detroit, 25 to 30 minute drive. It’s about five miles. I grew up five miles actually from the city limits of Detroit. I grew up on Twelve Mile. And it’s a world away. This is, you know it’s a world away. It’s got you know suburban accoutrements and box stores and coffee shops and you know it’s decent public schools.
And it’s interesting. When I grew up it was mostly Caucasian people there and all of the suburbs in the area are much more mixed now, which I think is a good thing, partly because the black middle class made an exodus out of Detroit, and has also moved to the suburbs. At first it was just the white folks and then it was the black middle class. As Mayor Bing said in that clip, most people that could leave have left.
LAMB: Why should Detroit be saved? Why should there be all, a lot of money pumped in there?
EWING: I don’t think this country is willing to let Detroit go. And it might be for reasons of nostalgia. It might be for reasons of pride. If I made a film called Indianapolis-topia you wouldn’t have had me on probably. We wouldn’t be here talking. No one would have seen it. It’s Detroit. There is a piece of Detroit in everyone’s garage. It is, it holds a special place. A mythic place. Is it deservedly does it deservedly have that place? I don’t know.
You know it’s just, this country will not allow Detroit to be completely abandoned and to fail. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think it’s a point of personal pride. It’s the same reason that we have an American auto industry that no one really wanted to allow to go bankrupt.
LAMB: So what you lived there what year?
EWING: This film was made
what, 2010? We lived there for about a year and a half.
LAMB: Did both of you live there?
EWING: We took turns. And our crew lived there. We were there for two weeks at a time, three weeks at a time. We would come home. We got two apartments downtown Detroit. Crewed up and basically moved in for about a year or year and half.
LAMB: Were they cheap?
EWING: Yes. Pretty cheap.
LAMB: So how do you and Rachel Grady divide your responsibilities?
EWING: It depends. We cast the films together. So we go on location in the beginning together. We choose most of the subjects together. We come up with the look and feel and the tone of a film together. And then we go on location separately. So we will not, we’re not both there together.
It’s better to have one person in the field and then the other person has a much more objective view of the material when she watches it later. So I’ll watch the material that she filmed and she will watch the material that I filmed. And then we show our favorite pieces to the editor. Then she weighs in. She is a major collaborator of ours, Enat Sidi, and that way we try to sift through so the only the A scenes, the best scenes, make it into a film.
LAMB: Do you both have families? I mean your own children or anything like that?
EWING: Rachel actually had a baby the first week of production that we began. So she was on location a little bit less because of that. I don’t have children. I have a husband and she has a child. So yes.
LAMB: The character named Tommy Stevens. I’m not sure he would want to be called a character but who is he?
EWING: Mr. Tommy Stevens is the heart and soul of Detropia. He is a retired schoolteacher. He is a black middle class man who could leave Detroit but doesn’t. He owns the last black-owned blues bar in Detroit on the eastside of Detroit. It’s called the Raven Lounge. And he opens it every Friday and Saturday night. Some people sometimes people come, sometimes they don’t.
It used to be a watering hole for the guys who come out of the plant up the street when the plant was thriving. So it was really a busy, busy business. And he’s watched as the industry has failed, he’s watched his client base of customers go away. So he is really an interesting guy to look at because of his proximity of the plant and just because he is an amazing street philosopher and is on his own journey of exploration in the movie.
LAMB: Here is just a brief 40 seconds of Tommy Stevens.
TOMMY STEVENS, LOUNGE OWNER, DETROIT: Capitalism is a great system. I love it. But it exploits the weak. It always does. It always does, unfortunately. You know Kagan (sp?), one of the sociologists that I use to read back in the 60’s, said that the upper class needed the middle class to buffer the poor.
That if you take the middle class away, the upper class will spawn and will have problems from the lower class. You got to think about it now. Only 2 percent of Americans exceed $300,000 a year, only 2 percent. So if you wiped out the middle class there then are you going to have 98 percent of poor folk in this city?
I mean this country.
LAMB: What do you think of his philosophy there?
EWING: Well he ends up saying that if there is no buffer between the rich and the poor the only thing left is revolution. That’s his big line in the film. He’s not calling for revolution or riots. The man is observing that at some point this is going to break. At some point when you’ve got the amount of jobless people, if it’s still on, if it goes on the rise and people have lost their dignity and their ability to provide you know you, there is an economic revolution that’s a possibility and this is he said this a year before the Occupy Wall Street.
It was so prescient, it was interesting. Of course Occupy Wall Street didn’t go anywhere but the idea that there would be this conversation happening and roiling in this country I think he observed that. You know, I think he is somebody who articulates what a lot of people are feeling, which is that somehow just you know working hard and doing the right thing and keeping your head down and putting in the hours that used to translate into at least a decent lifestyle.
That was some sort of guarantee. Maybe it was never a guarantee. We imagined it to be a guarantee. I think maybe that’s what happened. But the other shoe has dropped and so I think he is observing what a lot of people are feeling right now which is this anxiety and this panic that somehow they can’t and won’t reap the benefits of capitalism or that they won’t do as well as their parents did. So I just think he captures that feeling.
LAMB: What do you think? You grew up with a father that was an entrepreneur. He’s obviously a capitalist.
EWING: That’s right. And a Republican.
LAMB: And there you see the inner city which any of them this man had a business too.
Ewing: That’s right. And he still owns that business. He is a great businessman. He buys houses in Detroit also, you see in the film. And he renovates them and rents them to people. He is a business guy. And he does love capitalism. He believes in it. He believes in the free markets.
And he believes in the free markets and yet identifies that something is broken and that you know we need to find a way out of this. There, there you know another thing is, you brought up NAFTA earlier and look, I’m not an economist. I’m a filmmaker, but the idea that I think we believe that we didn’t need those jobs any more. We didn’t need those dirty jobs. We didn’t need those manufacturing jobs. We could do better.
The service economy was on the horizon or something better was on the way so why not let those jobs go. I think that was short-sighted because we didn’t realize that we haven’t filled that vortex. We haven’t replaced it. And we been you know flailing around trying to figure out what it is and some many millions of low-skilled or non-skilled people were able to have a decent lifestyle.
And now without an education, an excellent even if you have an excellent education you might not find a job. So it’s really these cycles of economy that you see playing out in Detroit and Mr. Stevens in his own matter of fact way seems to be making those observations.
LAMB: Is Crystal Starr her real name?
EWING: Yes. Crystal Starr is her real name. S-T-A-R-R.
LAMB: And who is she?
EWING: She is a star. She is awesome. She is a Detroiter born and raised. She is in her late 20s. She is a barista. She is a poet. She is an urban explorer. She is a writer. She is a blogger. She is a young creative person who is trying to stay in Detroit because she loves it. And trying to make ends meet and trying to figure out what’s there for her as a young and curious, intelligent person.
LAMB: When you were following her around, what was how was it set up? And why was she where she was in the old mansion and the theaters and
EWING: She told me once, she said, ”You suburban kids you had tree houses, well we have abandoned buildings. And that’s where we explore and that’s where we have our fun.” And she goes into buildings all the time. That’s her, that her she was doing it already.
That’s one of the reasons we cast her because that’s what she did in her free time was go into the old hotels and the old apartments and the old industries and factories and she would get her book and she would figure out what used to be there. Who used to live there? What did they wear, how did they live? What was the Detroit that she didn’t experience, that heyday, that place that worked, the important big grand city. She never experienced it. Her parents barely experienced it but yet people talk about it all the time because it’s a place that’s filled with nostalgia even for young people.
So she represents that, that holding on to an era, a bygone era but not having experienced it.
LAMB: And how much education does Crystal Starr have?
EWING: She’s got, she’s got some college experience and I think she continues to take classes.
LAMB: But she is a blogger. She writes about all this?
EWING: Yes. She is a video blogger mainly and she does, she does writing. She has cultural salons on the weekends and stuff.
LAMB: Let’s watch Crystal Starr.
CRYSTAL STARR, DETROIT BLOGGER: History is just one of my things, even since grade school. That’s a passion. What was there? Who was there? Wow, it’s amazing where you see where they just ripped out the wall because there is copper piping right there.
Hmm. Can you imagine, like, having breakfast right here? You know what I mean, like look at your view. Look at your view in the morning. Like yes, I’m going to go out and conquer the world because I can damn near see it from right here.
Motown right up the street. Hmm, Can’t leave man, can’t fucking leave. I feel like I was maybe here a little while back. Or I’m older than I really am but I just have like this young, this young body and spirit and mind but I have the memory of this place when it was banging. That’s how I feel.
EWING: Yes. A lot of people feel that way. A lot of Detroiters feel that way. The memories, some people have a memory of the place when it was banging because they were there. And people like Crystal have a memory of the place when it was banging because she heard about it. She read about it. She dreamed about it. She was told about it.
And there was that hope that it could somehow come back, return to greatness. I think it won’t. I think it should become something different. Transform itself into something that works, that’s smaller and functional and more nimble. But returning to that era, none of us can do that. No city can do that.
LAMB: I’m going to end it with not some of your video, but before I do I want to ask you about it because within the last couple of weeks 60 Minutes did a big feature on Rodriguez.
EWING: Oh yes.
LAMB: But Rodriguez, a man who for years has lived in Detroit, lived in the places like you’re seeing here. No one knew about him and he had been a singer. What do you think the rest of the world is saying about your Detropia, your documentary, 120, I guess it was an hour and 28 minutes long and then also seeing Rodriguez, another, you know, Looking for Sugarman.
What’s the image we’re portraying to the rest of the world? What’s the message?
EWING: Oh well, I think the message, I mean that film is a totally different animal. I actually ran into Rodriguez while promoting Detropia. I ran into him, literally bumped into him on the street. He was an amazing talent that was lost to the world forever working in Detroit in construction. And then he was plucked out and he was found by the filmmakers.
And now he’s returned to greatness and celebrity. I think Rodriguez experiences, has experience the harsh realities that a lot of Detroiters have. And I think the message that we’re portraying to the world is that this is a city in transition, this is a country in a bit of a transition, we’re having a bit of identity crisis. We’re trying to figure out what the next 50 years are going to look like and other countries have been through it. There are highs and there are lows. And this country is finally talking about, about those realities for maybe the first time.
And so I think we’re projecting to the world an honest reassessment of where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
LAMB: Detropia can be found
EWING: In many movie theaters.
LAMB: In many movie theaters, but iTunes and then later sold on DVD in January and all that.
EWING: That’s right.
LAMB: What’s next?
EWING: Oh, I need to sleep for a year.
LAMB: Do you have another documentary?
EWING: We just finished a film for HBO called the Education of Mohammed Hussein. And it looks at Islamophobia through the eyes of children, Muslim children in America, 10 years after 911.
LAMB: And when is that going to run?
EWING: I’m not sure yet but look out for it.
LAMB: OK, this is just a little bit of Inner City Blues, Rodriguez, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, not connected with your film but it captures another personality from that city. Thank you, Heidi Ewing for joining us.
EWING: Thank you for having me.