Our How-To Guide for making a hardscrabble, gritty, post-industrial documentary about Detroit
Detroit is a city that fascinates a lot of people.
Its story is not a simple one, though it has sometimes been a dramatic one. So maybe it’s not surprising that we seem to hear every week about a new documentary film being made about Detroit.
Changing Gears hasn’t had a chance to see all of these documentaries, but we’ve heard about an awful lot of them.
And we’ve noticed some patterns that we thought could be helpful in case you ever decide to make a documentary about the Motor City.
So, here is our DIY guide for how to make a Detroit documentary:
An abandoned building sits desolate in the morning light. Tufts of yellowed grass sprout up among the cracked concrete and bent steel. The grass blades wave weakly with the wind, as if in surrender.
Once the shot establishes, you can add a voice-over, and possibly some sad music.
Act One: “Paris of the Midwest”
After you visually establish that Detroit is a rotting mess of industrial decay, you’ll need to remind your audience of the glory days. Be sure to refer to Detroit as the Motor City as much as possible.
You should also use phrases like “put the world on wheels,” “gave rise to the middle class” and “Paris of the Midwest.”
You can even get archival footage of Detroit on YouTube:
Once that’s established, you’ll want to cue up some ominous music. It’s time to show people the city’s rapid and depressing decline. In the past, if you were making a documentary about Detroit, now would be the time to show footage from the 1967 riots.
But using the riots as a way to describe Detroit’s decline has fallen somewhat out of fashion. You can still mention the riots, but be sure to mention that other cities had riots too, and that the city’s downfall can’t be blamed on this one set of events. Still, you’ll have to blame the decline on something, so here’s a list of possible scapegoats:
- The Federal Government
- The State Government
- The declining social fabric of America
Act Two: The Post-Apocalyptic Hell-Scape
This is the part of Detroit documentaries that gets people most excited, so don’t hold back. Some choose to skip the other parts of the story completely and just do an entire documentary on this. Either way, you’ll need lots more shots of abandoned places.
This time, visit some neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown. You can get shots of empty blocks, crumbled houses and graffiti. Pay special attention to the places where vegetation has started growing up through concrete. In a Detroit documentary, you can never have too many of those shots.
It’s also important to put a human face on this part of the story. You should try to find someone with big, watery eyes who’s old enough to remember the good days in Detroit. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you about bullets being shot through their window, drugs taking over their street and the inevitable hopelessness that every poor soul left in Detroit can’t help but feel.
If you’re really lucky, they’ll ask you to stop taping so they can cry. It goes without saying that this person should be extremely poor and preferably black.
End the act with a long, lingering pause, so that your audience can fully feel the visceral, unending misery that is life in today’s Detroit.
Act Three: A Glimmer Of Hope
This act is sometimes optional in Detroit documentaries. In other documentaries it’s the entire focus (but those are usually the boring documentaries). Anyway, the hopeful storyline should start off with a shot of downtown Detroit, this time with actual people in it, to show that life goes on despite all the horror.
Then you’ll want to cut to a project or business that is emblematic of what’s going right in the city. Here are some suggestions:
- Avalon Bakery
- Slow’s Bar B Q
- Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes
- Detroit Denim Co.
- Any community garden
- Any artist
- Detroit Creative Corridor Center
Don’t worry if most of the people you interview are white. Young white people who want to rebuild Detroit are totally in right now.
But try not to mention any of the really big companies downtown like GM, Compuware, the hospitals or anything related to Dan Gilbert. Your audience doesn’t want to hear about boring, big companies and their polished PR machine.
You should also avoid politics and politicians because that’s even more boring. A good rule of thumb is: If the person wears a suit, don’t put them in your documentary. Try to focus on people in a form-fitting t-shirts, thick-rimmed glasses and faded jeans.
There should be lots of references in this act to Detroiters’ work ethic. Use words like “grit,” “blue-collar” and “hardscrabble” as much as possible. This is also a good time to use a shot of the Joe Louis fist sculpture.
As the documentary comes to a close, bring in a montage of images, this time showing buildings that are occupied, streets that have people on them and vegetation that is green. You might show one of those abandoned buildings as a callback, but this time include some sign of life – like a flower in bloom.
End the film with a quote from someone in your third act. Have them say something like: “The auto companies built this town. The [insert scapegoat here] brought it down. But us Detroiters have a hardscrabble, blue-collar, gritty work-ethic. We’ll build this city again.”
Cut to black.
Then prepare your pitch to Sundance.
Note to Detroit’s documentary filmmakers: We kid because we love.