Review: “Detropia” (2012)

The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. Is the Midwestern icon actually a canary in the American coal mine? DETROPIA is a cinematic tapestry of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.

A Film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

“Detropia” is a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th and Delaware, The Boys of Baraka).  The film showcases the bleak and hard times Detroit has gone through.  The film follows three main Detroiters:  Crystal Starr is a video blogger and also works at a local café; Tommy Stephens is a retired school teacher who now owns the Raven Lounge; and George McGregor is the President of the Local 22 United Auto Workers Union.  Through these Detroiters you get a glimpse of what life is like in Detroit and what might be the future of the D and America.

Throughout the film you are given facts about Detroit and the United States.  People are leaving Detroit at an alarming rate.  What once was the fastest growing city in the world has now seen over 100,000 abandoned homes and empty lots in the past 10 years.  The film has an appropriately dark and depressing tone to give everyone a wake-up call to what our country is in for.  This isn’t an isolated incident.  All over the country we have seen people losing their jobs and homes every day.  Tommy Stephens gave a great analogy about helping your neighbor if their house is on fire.  If you don’t help them then the fire is coming to you.  Detroit suffered and didn’t get the help it needed and now that downward spiral is headed to the rest of the nation.  The Mayor wanted to try and start a “Detroit Works Project” to move people from sparsely populated neighborhoods to more densely populated neighborhoods.  Detroiters were outraged and didn’t think that this would make any difference.   Even though there have been many people leaving Detroit there has been an increase of adults under the age of 35 moving into downtown Detroit.  The housing is so affordable that it makes it easy for people, especially artists, to purchase a home in the downtown area.

One of the toughest things to face is the fact that over 50,000 factories have closed in the United States, and this has resulted in a loss of over 6 million jobs.  George talks about how America used to manufacture everything.  We even built planes here during World War II.  Unfortunately, most of the jobs have been outsourced overseas to cut costs.  He also talks about how the middle class was born in Detroit.  People used to flock to the city to get a job.  Now people are down and out and have turned to other avenues for income such as collecting scrap metal to sell.

Some facts about Detroit:

  • The jobless rate for Detroiters is estimated to be 30%.  Most of the positive effect of the government bailout of the auto industry has been focused in other parts of Michigan.
  • Facing a $12 billion deficit, Detroit narrowly averted bankruptcy in April 2012 by going into a consent agreement, or a power sharing deal with the state.
  • In May 2012, Detroit announced it would shut off half its streetlights due to budget woes.
  • In June 2012, 169 firefighters were laid off.
  • In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
  • Detroit’s population decreased by more than 25% in the last decade. (The New York Times)
  • The median Detroit home price in 2011 was about $54,000 — more than $100,000 less than the rest of the country.

I was impressed with the overall sense that Detroiters have hope for the future.  Many are extremely loyal to their city and refuse to leave.  The automakers have started to make a profit again and there seems to be more good news around the corner.  Detroiters can be an inspiration to fellow Americans in the sense that even though times are tough you have to keep your head up and have hope for a better tomorrow.

Detropia releases in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, September 7.  For screenings in New York and across the country, please click here.

To learn more about Detropia, visit the official website.

You can visit Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s production company at Loki Films.


Lotus Wollschlager is the official Her Film movie reviewer.  Find her bio on the HF.Reviews page.

Her.Stories: Nina Simone biopic, Toronto Int’l Film Fest, Sweden & women filmmakers, and For a Good Time, Call…

The Controversy Surrounding the Casting of Zoë Saldana                
as Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s New Biopic

Cynthia Mort is writer/director of a yet to be titled biopic(ish) of the legendary singer/musician Nina Simone.  With Mary J. Blige originally attached (for several years before she departed the project allegedly due to financial problems with the production), Zoë Saldana has recently been cast as Simone.  There has been an outcry about this mainly around the fact that Saldana bears no resemblance to Simone, but also because Saldana is a Latina (she’s also black, by the way) and has a lighter skin tone than Simone.  Director Mort has indicated that it’s not a strict biopic as it takes liberties with the facts (one of which is that Simone had an affair with a gay man — she didn’t).  Even Simone’s daughter, whose name is simply “Simone,” has spoken out against the story, and has claimed that following an initial conversation with Mort where they agreed to speak again, Simone was met with silence for, as Mort explains separately in an Entertainment Weekly interview, she was told not to communicate with Simone.

One disturbing fact about this entire conversation is that I have seen several articles that refer to Saldana explicitly as “Dominican,” without mentioning the fact she is multiracial — yes, she is a Latina, but she is also a Black Latina (and there are a great many number of Black Latinos in the world).  Also, this is not to disregard that she may be more than “just” Latina and Black.  The language used to describe her as a Latina, while simultaneously avoiding that she is also Black smacks to me of a sort of ethnocentrism which pits the Latino community against the Black community and dismisses Saldana’s ethnic, racial and cultural complexities (just like we all have).  Yes, I’m in agreement that the casting is bad because of the complete lack of resemblance Saldana holds to Simone (and yes, resemblance also includes skin tone), but I do not think that “she’s not Black, but Latina,” is a valid argument against Saldana being cast in the role; in fact, that argument is completely fallacious.  That is one reason I wanted to provide this digest, to not only follow along with the controversy surrounding a biopic of a woman I greatly admire and have been a fan of for years, but also to address, in some small way, the prejudiced approach that many journalists and those choosing to leave comments on news sites, have taken with regard to Saldana playing Nina Simone.

What are YOUR thoughts? Please leave a reply below.

*MUST READ*:  We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation)
at Shadow and Act

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone: My thoughts
at the Monique Blog: race, entertainment, culture

Nina Simone’s Daughter on Her Mother’s REAL Legacy
at Ebony

Will ‘Avatar’ Actress Zoe Saldana Play Legendary Singer Nina Simone?
at The Daily Beast

Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film
at The Huffington Post

Nina Simone’s Daughter Responds to Zoe Saldana Casting, Says Film Is ‘Unauthorized’
at Clutch Magazine

Larger-than-life: Nina Simone film writer-director, others, on beauty, challenge of musician biopics
at Entertainment Weekly

Casting Notice For Nina Simone Project Reveals More About What To Expect…
at indieWIRE


Other stories about women in film this week:

Toronto & Women Directors
at Wellywood Woman

The Smart and Funny Young Women Behind the Most Surprisingly Empowering Movie of the Year
at The Huffington Post

More Female Documentary Directors, But Celluloid Ceiling Remains
at The Wrap

Ann Richards Film Recalls a Woman and Her Era
at the New York Times

First-Time Director Leslye Headland Talks About Her Uproarious Comedy ‘Bachelorette’
at Backstage

Reichert honore for lifetime achievement in film
at YS News

Venice film festival: female directors get recognition for a change
at The Guardian

LUND 2012: New Wave Of Titles Focus On Female Filmmakers In Genre Film
at Twitch Film

Women’s Stories Weekly

License to Pimp, San Francisco Documentary, Sheds Light on Strip Club Corruption (Her Film’s SPOTLIGHT feature this month!)
at The Huffington Post

The horror, the horror: women gather in LA for Viscera Film Festival
at The Guardian

Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life doc picked up by Strand Releasing for U.S. distribution
at The Hollywood Reporter

Frances Lea, a filmmaker who puts women centre-stage
at The Guardian

Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste Gets U.S. DVD Release on July 23
at Subtitled Online

Ethical Manhoods:  Interview with Professor and Filmmaker Celine Parreñas-Shimizu
at Hyphen Magazine

SPOTLIGHT: License to Pimp

What would you do

if the strip club you worked at became a brothel?

Would you adapt to it, fight it, or quit?

LICENSE TO PIMP chronicles three strippers facing this dilemma.  Lola competes with club prostitutes to keep her job & support her family.  Daisy tried to get the city to enforce the laws & is up against strip club management & the strippers themselves who want to maintain the status quo.  Mariko quits working in the strip clubs & works independently of the club circuit so she can retain her earnings.  Ex-stripper & filmmaker Hima B. goes behind the scenes to reveal current workplace realities & show how the clubs operate by violating workers’ rights.

Pitch video:


Crowdfunding through: Kickstarter (as of this post, 22 days left to go on campaign)

Campaign goal: $30,000 (as of this post, $3,341 funded)

Courtesy of Hima B.

From filmmaker, Hima B.:

“I worked in half of San Francisco’s strip clubs during the 1990s and saw their transformation into brothels.  Now as a filmmaker, I uncover current working conditions & try to find out how strip clubs are able to operate outside the law.”

“As stripping increasingly gains acceptance within popular culture, more and more women & teenagers enter this industry and are unaware of their rights & workplace realities.  This documentary reveals the impact these illegal practices have on workers.  This is why License to Pimp needs to be made.”

Courtesy of Hima B.

The Characters:

Lola begins stripping as a 16 year old after learning her mother has cancer & needs treatment.

Daisy Anarchy goes public about how the strip clubs’ illegal fees have pushed many strippers to prostitute.

Mariko Passion quits stripping at her favorite club as the work becomes increasingly sexual and spills into her personal life.


Hima B. (Director/Producer/Camera)

Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:


Facebook:  /LicenseToPimpMovie

Twitter: @LicenseToPimp



Mailing List:


Do you have a film you are trying to finance that you would like to feature here?  Send us an email with a website and social media page(s) for your film.

From the archives: Rebecca Richman Cohen’s WAR DON DON

In light of this week’s conviction of ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor at The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, I’m re-posting this interview from 2010 with Rebecca Richman Cohen.  She is the director of the HBO documentary film WAR DON DON and a former member of a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  Her documentary is about the trial of a former Sierra Leonean rebel leader charged with crimes against humanity.  Events in Liberia and Sierra Leone are tied; Charles Taylor was tried and convicted of crimes he committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone.  More on the Taylor conviction at Democracy Now! (video).


WAR DON DON: Rebecca Richman Cohen. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

BIO: Rebecca Richman Cohen is an award-winning filmmaker with experience in human rights.  During law school she worked at the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a legal defense team for the AFRC-accused case.  Later, she returned to begin production on WAR DON DON, which profiles the trial of a leader of a separate warring faction.  WAR DON DON won the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.  Rebecca was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine‘s 25 New Faces in Independent Film as an “up-and-comer posed to shape the next generation of independent film.” Rebecca graduated from Brown University and Harvard Law School.  Between trips to Sierra Leone, she has been adjunct faculty at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and at American University’s Human Rights Institute.

[War Don Don premiered on HBO on Sept. 29, 2010.]

WAR DON DON: Issa Sesay. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

Her Film: What was the impetus behind you making WAR DON DON?

Rebecca Richman Cohen: My background is actually in law – not film.  In law school I worked on a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  It’s the same court profiled in the film — but I worked on the trial of a different warring faction.  During that time I was exposed first hand to experience the inner-workings of the Court and I gained an intimate view of process in a way that would be difficult if I were just a journalist airdropped in to tell a specific story.

WAR DON DON: Justice Benjamin Itoe. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

Working at the Special Court, I came to know lawyers on the prosecution and the defense of Issa Sesay’s trial.  Both sides had some of the brightest and most impassioned lawyers I’ve ever met and I was fascinated by the moral, political, and legal questions that their commitments evoked.  Combining my legal experience in criminal defense with my background as a filmmaker, I realized that a documentary film could capture the complexities of the issues in way that neither law review articles nor mainstream media could accurately represent.

HF: How do you define your role as a documentary filmmaker?

RRC: Being a filmmaker is more than just telling a non-fiction story.  It’s also about honoring perspectives.

I treat my subjects with respect and I try to honor their perspectives – even if I disagree with them.  I assume that audiences can sort through competing narratives and come to their own conclusions.  One of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the impassioned debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.

We did a great many rough cut screenings with different audiences – Sierra Leoneans and Westerners, lawyers and lay people, filmmakers, film lovers, and even a few who were generally indifferent to the art of documentary film.

I knew we were done editing when different people took away different things from the film – when the film acted like a Rorschach test of sorts. Different audiences will come to their own conclusions – and one of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.  I hope audiences enjoy having some of their assumptions tested and come to examine their own reactions to controversial issues.  That’s my role as a filmmaker.

WAR DON DON: Issa Sesay, Wayne Jordash. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

HF: You showed Wayne Jordash (defense for the main accused man on trial, Issa Sesay) reflecting on the trial process and his attempts to understand the human condition and its inherent contradictions — that people aren’t just good or evil, but can often be somewhere in between.  What is your perception or observation of how the Sierra Leonean people attempt to understand both sides of the issue, despite the unthinkable terror the war evoked?

RRC: It’s impossible to speak for an entire country.  People’s perspectives in Sierra Leone – and throughout the world – are inevitably colored by their experiences.  It’s a tall order to ask people who have suffered terrible losses in war to see both sides of the issue.  The crimes perpetrated in Sierra Leone cannot be justified.  But in order to address the root causes of the war – and to prevent crimes in the future – the motivations underlying the war must be understood.

The work of the Special Court is not to see both sides of the issue or to create empathy for perpetrators.  The work of the Special Court is to fairly judge the guilt or innocent of individuals.  Understanding the motivations of different actors in the conflict – that’s the domain of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Being a filmmaker is… also about honoring perspectives.”

HF: Sierra Leone has experienced what is unfathomable horror for many people.  What did you learn in the process of making this film about how people (try to) heal from such atrocities?

RRC: When I was a law student [at Harvard], I read a book by Dean Martha Minow, called Between Vengeance and Forgiveness [subtitled Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence] — it’s a book that deeply influenced my understanding of transitional justice.    One of the points Dean Minow makes that is forgiveness or healing may just be too tall an order in the aftermath mass atrocities.  A more realistic objective is peaceful coexistence.

WAR DON DON: David Crane. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

I think criminal prosecutions are one element necessary to promote peaceful coexistence, but one of many.   There’s consensus that it takes a holistic approach in order to address the root causes of the conflict:  rampant corruption, lack of access to justice, a sense of hopeless and inability to effect change without resorting to violence.  In order to move forward in the aftermath of war international transitional justice efforts need to work in concert with grassroots and civil society initiatives.

WAR DON DON: Wayne Jordash. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

HF: Can you talk a bit about the crew you worked with to make this film and the conditions in Sierra Leone which surrounded your production?

RRC: We made the decision early on to shoot on high definition video to capture the vibrancy of daily life in West Africa.  Our cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, has an uncanny ability to find beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane quotidian aspects of life.  And our long production schedule allowed her sufficient time to develop the character of the city of Freetown (its vibrancy, its poverty, its movement, its soft light at sunset) – to the fullest.

Once we returned to the edit room, the film’s editor/producer, Francisco Bello, was struck by the texture of the archival footage that we were amassing.  Much of the war footage was archived on badly degraded VHS tapes – to the extent that it almost appeared painterly as edges softened and colors blurred.  So it was really satisfying to see the sharpness of our original HD footage contrasted against the fuzziness of the historical archives.  The juxtaposition of formats made a cinematic point about the decay of historical memory, and allowed us to play with structure, content and textures accordingly.

WAR DON DON: Stephen Rapp. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

HF: What has been the reaction to WAR DON DON in Sierra Leone?

RRC: In May 2010 I returned to Sierra Leone to launch our outreach campaign.  We had a Freetown première screening with a panel discussion that included the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, and the head of Outreach for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  The screening and panel discussion generated a great of debate and interesting discussion.

In addition to targeting civil society and government leaders, we also did a number of screenings for former combatants and Issa Sesay’s family.  And we sent a DVD to Issa Sesay who is serving his sentence in Rwanda.  Issa said that he “appreciated the effort” we put in to telling his story.

Currently, we are partnered with civil society organizations in Sierra Leone to continue screenings and to use the film to support their ongoing efforts with regard to promoting the rule of law and access to justice initiatives.


Visit the WAR DON DON website.

Become a fan on the WAR DON DON Facebook page.

Follow the film on twitter @wardondon.

Visit the HBO page for WAR DON DON.

See photos from the September 23 HBO screening of the film in New York City.