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The Detroit Free Press is using its expertise in video and storytelling to produce long-form documentaries about the city. (Brian Kaufman/Detroit Free Press)
The Detroit Free Press is using its expertise in video and storytelling to produce long-form documentaries about the city. (Brian Kaufman/Detroit Free Press)

Moving pictures from the Motor City Add to ...

Detroit’s vast, abandoned Packard Automotive Plant has become symbolic of the city’s rise and fall, and the focus of a long-running drama about what can be done with the 16-hectare ruins. But a new documentary about the Packard also tells another story: about how a 183-year-old Detroit newspaper is morphing into a producer of full-length documentaries and an annual film festival.

The Detroit Free Press recently held its inaugural Freep Film Festival, and one of the marquee offerings was the paper’s own 70-minute documentary, Packard: The Last Shift. More than 1,000 people showed up for the premiere, which included a panel discussion with director Brian Kaufman, a Free Press videographer and developer Fernando Palazuelo, who bought the site at a tax auction in December.

Newspapers everywhere are trying to figure out how to stay alive in a digital world, and many have embraced streaming video clips as part of the answer. The Free Press, unusually, has decided to turn its video and storytelling expertise to long-form narrative as well.

“Much to my boss’s chagrin, I see everything as long form,” says Free Press director of photo and video and festival artistic director Kathy Kieliszewski, with a laugh. Most of her video group’s daily energies go into making news clips for the paper’s website, but there’s often time between assignments, she says, to nudge a documentary project along.

The paper has won four Emmy awards, including one for a 2006 series of five- to seven-minute pieces about Michigan marines who had served in Iraq. Like most other papers, the Free Press thought short was best for online, till it heard from readers about a nine-minute video it posted to mark the 50th anniversary of Aretha Franklin’s Respect hitting No. 1. “We thought people would only watch a few minutes,” says Kieliszewski by phone from Detroit, “but they were telling us, ‘I could have watched another half hour of that.’”

In 2011, she put Living With Murder, about violence in Detroit, on the site as a series of five chapters that you could choose to watch as a continuous 41-minute film. Many people did; the series won an Edward R. Murrow Award. The way seemed open for more long-form documentaries, including a film about Packard.

“We thought it would be about 45 minutes, but the story kept evolving as we worked on it,” says Kieliszewski, whose grandfather worked at the Packard plant. “The owner at the time got out of jail, then he was trying to pay the taxes, then it went up for auction, and the previous owner said the new owner didn’t have title. All these crazy things were going on. We were working up to the last minute, because there was so much news happening.”

Even the six-minute trailer makes a strong statement, from the wrenching opening visualization of Detroit writer Philip Levine’s poem, The Last Shift, to some equally powerful comment by the plant’s neighbours. “Right now, the building as it is represents the future, and it’s nothing,” says one resident, facing the ruin. “We need somebody to change our nothing into something.”

A festival, with panel discussions at every screening, seemed like a good way to corral several recent documentaries about Detroit, and to get people talking about what can be done to make the city more viable. It also looked like a way to put the Free Press in front of a constructive debate, says Kieliszewski, and to reach a younger audience than a typical newspaper demographic.

The three-day festival’s other offerings ranged from Stealing Home, a film about a volunteer grounds-crew that still maintains the abandoned field at the old Tiger Stadium site; and Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, about the Detroit-born, B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman. Key festival staff prepped by volunteering at Toronto’s Hot Docs, and at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in northern Michigan.

“Based on the high interest in films related to Detroit, we knew we were going to be okay financially,” Kieliszewski says. One of the offerings for next year's festival will be a Free Press documentary, now in progress, about shipwreck hunters in the Great Lakes.

As yet there’s no clear revenue to be seen from the Free Press’s self-sustaining documentary adventures, though Kieliszewski says steps are being taken toward a deal with a broadcaster, such as PBS, or a theatrical distributor. Either way, she feels a strong case is being made for long-form visual storytelling as a platform for newspaper journalism.

“The thing that we do best is to tell great stories,” she says. “People crave that, and the quick hit isn’t going to satisfy them for long.”

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