We Didn’t Listen: Heidi Ewing on Detropia

Why her new documentary is an 'inconvenient' film for President Obama and whatever happened to her subjects from Jesus Camp.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Detropia was one of the documentaries at Sundance this year, and it is making its way into theaters this month. Co-director Heidi Ewing came to Los Angeles for Q&As at the local opening, where we chatted at a Starbucks outside the theater. The film follows Detroit citizens, including auto workers and a union rep, as the industry abandons them. Ewing and Rachel Grady have tackled subjects like evangelical training in youth in Jesus Camp, abortion in 12th & Delaware and education incentives in a segment for Freakonomics. Fresh from an audience Q&A, Ewing was prepared with answers to anything I could throw at her.

CraveOnline: I don’t mean to compare Detropia to another filmmaker, but I feel like Michael Moore warned us about Flint. Did we just not listen?

Heidi Ewing: We didn’t listen! I shouldn’t have to have made this movie. Roger & Me is the ultimate Michigan movie and Michael has seen my film. We were at Trevor City with it and I said, “I can’t believe that things actually got worse since you made Roger & Me.” No, we didn’t listen. In fact it got a lot worse because in the last 10 years, really this film for me is a 10 year movie because all of our statistics range within 10 years. Roger & Me was about 25 years ago and things got remarkably worse in the last 10 years in the United States in terms of manufacturing, in terms of job loss, in terms of the middle class. So no, we didn’t listen.

Do you wish the presidential candidates would address this more specifically than they are?

Yes, this is a film that would be very inconvenient for both candidates. I would love to show the film and have them talk about how to solve the problems of the people in the film. For Obama it’s an inconvenient film because he’s basing part of his campaign on the bailout being a big victory and saving the auto industry, in turn sort of saving Detroit and places like it. Of course it’s not his fault but the fact that the big three are profiting right now does not translate to jobs. The profits are huge but they don’t employ people anymore like they used to. Most of the profits are from abroad anyway so it’s not a convenient film because the narrative that Detroit is back, that artists are saving Detroit, the bailout saved Detroit, “Imported from Detroit,” the whole Clint Eastwood thing… This narrative is really what it’s like on the ground there for most people and it doesn’t line up with any of the media stories that have come out about the city in the last year. It’s inconvenient for Mitt Romney because he doesn’t have a solution either for what to do with unskilled or low skilled workers that used to be able to have at least a decent lower middle class lifestyle. Those jobs are gone, partly by people like his own doing with his outsourcing and his restricting and things like this. This movie’s about consequences, not about solutions. It’s about consequences of actions that have been taken in the past. It’s about greed, it’s about short sightedness, it’s about inability to compete. So I would love for the candidates to see the movie and talk about it, but it’s not a convenient film for them right now.

But you don’t attack the corporations in the movie, do you?

Well, I would say that we have a very strong scene where guys lose their jobs and the boss goes to Mexico. In the scene in front of American Axle, you watch guys basically lose their jobs because the wage cut is too steep. We don’t point the finger directly at any one individual but I feel like we have our way a little bit with the corporations. Our message gets across.

I guess I mean you don’t go ambush the CEOs and try to corner them.

Nah, we don’t do that. Not our style.

The footage of a dilapidated Detroit is so striking. What footage were you most proud to capture?

I love the auto show. I’m so proud, it’s not our most beautiful material, not at all, it’s an auto show but the fact that the scene where Mr. Stephens realizes that the car that’s being made up the street from his bar, the Chevy Volt, almost doesn’t have a chance in hell. I mean, the idea that the everyman, a regular guy in an eight minute scene is able to break down what the hell we’re faced with, I’m very proud to have captured that. I love the scene with the scrappers, the guys in the winter night that are taking down that building. We ran across those guys, we persuaded them to allow us to keep feeling even though they were doing something illegal. And then at the end they break down basically something that’s true which is that we are basically scrapping our own industry and our own metals and they are being exported to China where they are building an infrastructure, they are growing. These guys who don’t even have a high school education follow the price of metals on the international market more than an investor because basically that’s how they’re making their living. So they’re able to break down the international flow of economics in about a minute and a half and they’re absolutely accurate. So I’m proud of scenes like that where regular people are able to break it down for us in a way that we can access because we’re not politicians, we’re not economists. I’m proud that we didn’t resort to an economist on camera which would’ve been a big snooze fest, that we rely on regular people to help us see what we’re facing.

A lot of that footage of the worst areas is very dark and at night. How did you get such great footage in low light?

All of our night stuff was shot on a Canon 7D. We almost only used the Canon 7D for night stuff because it’s not my favorite machine. We don’t like changing out the lenses. I don’t like the hyper shallow depth of feel. I think it’s overused. But without that camera, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the night shooting, and we love to shoot at night at Loki films. All of our movies, all of them, have significant shooting at night. Jesus Camp has the least amount of night stuff partly because of the gear at that time was the PD150. We really just couldn’t do it but we don’t think there’s enough shooting at night in documentaries. A lot of things happen at night in the world. It’s half the day.

Or it’s all green night vision.

Yeah, and that’s no good. So that was really playing with lenses and playing with the 7D. Thanks for noticing.

When did you discover that Crystal, George and Tommy were the threads of the film?

Tommy was first. We knew Tommy was the thread. We met him early on and we knew that he was going to be a major player in the film and he might even be the heart and soul of the movie which I think he is. We found George because Tommy was talking about the plant up the street so we went to the plant and we found the guy in charge of the UAW [United Auto Workers] at the plant. It was George. I’m a huge opera fan. I knew I wanted opera in the movie. I wanted to surprise people that Detroit has an opera house. So we’re filming at the opera house one day and we went to get a coffee across the street and this amazing girl [Crystal] was showing her videos to her friends, she worked at the bar, of all the buildings she’s been breaking into and I was really mesmerized by her. Kinda early on but really we had a couple of other major characters that got cut out quite late, so the DVD extras are like 90 minutes of other people’s material. It’s amazing.

Do you or Rachel ever operate camera yourselves?

I did on Jesus Camp a little bit. Not on this one. Only in a pinch. I can if I need to but we prefer not to. I like everyone to have a different role. I believe in the collaboration of individuals with an expertise and I really wanted this film to look great. I put it in the hands of my collaborators to work with me on visuals but I try not to if I don’t have to. I’m not that good.

Do you and Rachel choose subjects that you’re already interested in or that you need to learn about?

We go with our gut and it has to be something that we want to learn about, that we think will sustain our attention over a period of two years or three years because it takes a long time to make these movies. So if we think we know a lot about something or we’ve got it figured out or have a very, very strong opinion already on something, we won’t make the film. It’s just not interesting to us. We have to be in awe during the production in order for us to try to make an audience in awe later. You can’t phone it in so we try to translate to our audience what it was like being there, what we were experience and what we were reacting to and condense it down to the highlights for our audience. So those are some parameters we have.

Did you work on a Mohammed Hussein short this year also?

How did you know about that?

It’s on IMDB but I didn’t know if it was true.

Yeah, yeah, it’s called The Education of Mohammed Hussein. It’s for HBO. It’s a short documentary film. It also takes place in the Detroit area which has the largest Muslim population in the United States. So it looks at what it’s like to be a Muslim child 10 years after 9/11 dealing with Islamaphobia that’s been on the rise.

There’s something I didn’t know about. I didn’t know there was a Muslim community at all in Detroit.

You know what, outside of Paris, the largest Muslim population in the western hemisphere is the Detroit area. They came to work in the auto industry years ago and they stayed and now their families continue. Bengali, Yemeni, Syrian, Lebanese.

When will that be on HBO?

Not sure when they’re broadcasting. We just finished it. It’ll be on the air I think soon. I hope soon.

Is HBO a good forum in which to do shorter subjects?

We don’t do shorts usually. We started out thinking it was going to be a longer piece and then we decided that it was much tighter and much more exciting at 40 minutes.

Have you followed up with any of the subjects from Jesus Camp?

Oh yeah. Talked to Becky, talked to Levi. They’re all still believin’. They’re doin’ they’re thing. Becky’s still saving souls and Levi’s engaged and is an EMT and went to Egypt with his family for a while to try to evangelize, [Laughs], bring Christianity to them.

You laugh but that’s not a joke to him, is it?

No, I smile because it’s ballsy as hell to go to Egypt and try to convert people to Christianity. I think it’s ballsy right now to do stuff like that so that’s why I’m laughing because he’s just himself and they’re all super hardcore believers.

How about the subject from Freakonomics, the kid who was failing out of high school?

You know, we’ve lost track of them. They moved. Kevin and Urail. Urail we’re a little bit in touch with but not so much. I’d love to know what happened to Kevin but he was not going on the right path. I bet he’s dropped out and I think Urail’s probably fine.

I don’t think Kevin could have passed if he wanted to.

No, I’m sure he dropped out.

I noticed you did a “Guns in America” episode.

Oh God, you’re going way back now. You’re going way, way back.

So I was wondering what you thought about the discussion that happened after Aurora this summer.

I think that both candidates are pussies for not talking about gun control. We need to have gun control. I agree with Michael Bloomberg, my mayor in New York who says this is ridiculous, people should not have semi-automatic weapons. There should be a bigger vetting process. I think that it will not get resolved because the NRA is too strong of a lobby. I’m completely appalled by how that’s gone down and I think the candidates are wusses for not talking about it at the debates and I think Jim Lehrer should’ve brought it up at that last debate. Hopefully he will, because they talk around it and they bullsh*t about it.

It seems like no matter what Jim Lehrer brought up at that debate, nothing was going to get done.

They didn’t pay him too much mind.

But didn’t Obama come out after Aurora and say we need gun control, which is not a safe thing to say in an election year.

Yeah, but he hasn’t said it since.