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Detropia chronicles a once-booming city’s fall from grace

A scene from “Detropia“

Detroit has become a state of mind of late – a mingled sense of loss, frustration and hope for renewal. That thought is eloquently reflected in Detropia, an elegiac tone poem about a city once an icon of American prosperity, now a symbol of post-industrial despair.

Winner of Sundance's documentary editing prize, the latest film from director duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady eschews narrative structure for an intuitive approach, hovering around a few people (a blogger who reports from the "ruins," a retired schoolteacher who owns one of the last blues clubs, the beleaguered mayor etc.) and tuning in to daily-life rhythms. In one mood-shifting scene, we come upon "scrappers" (who illegally salvage metal for cash) huddling around a fire.

"It's so Mad Max," says Grady, who will attend the Friday opening of a two-week run at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. "These men are literally ripping apart the old infrastructure, but it also speaks to the people being survivors."

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While the aesthetic appeal of derelict buildings and neighbourhoods is a visual no-brainer, it's voices that are truly captivating – talk-show chatter, town-hall hubbub. And interspersed through it all is music and live footage from the Michigan Opera Theatre, the film's leitmotif and a pleasant surprise for those expecting Detroit's more familiar Motown, hip-hop and techno grooves. Not surprisingly, Detropia is getting a bump from the U.S. election.

"We happened to nail the zeitgeist," Grady says. "But what intrigued us was finding the personality, heart and life of the city."

Detropia runs at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema from Oct. 5 to 19. Rachel Grady will participate in a post-screening discussion at the 6:45 show on Oct. 5.

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