‘Detropia’ finds beauty in a dying city

Early in “Detropia,” we are given a matching pair of statistics. The first notes that in 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world.

The second — well, you can probably see this coming. The second reminds us that these days, Detroit is the fastest-shrinking city in the world.

That decline is given witness in “Detropia,” but these early statistics give a misleading description of the movie’s approach. This is not a nuts-and-bolts informational guide to how a great American city went into freefall, but a haunting, impressionistic portrait of emptiness and loss.

There’s no narration, but we do hear many voices, and we peer into a handful of lives. We follow a blogger as she explores empty buildings in Detroit’s neighborhoods, marveling at the awesome views people used to have.

We meet a union representative as he presents an axle company’s final offer to its employees. Since the wage falls below a livable standard, the assumption is that the company probably wants to move its business offshore, as many others have.

That’s sad, but even more potent is following the union rep as he drives by the former plants and factories that gave cars to the world. They take up an enormous amount a real estate, and they’re empty now.

The most vivid person we meet is a fellow who owns a modest blues club, a former autoworker who remembers the good old days. His articulate observations take on a particular edge when he visits the auto show and sees that the Chinese have come up with an electric car that will be sold at almost half the price of the Chevy Volt: All he can see is history ready to repeat itself.

“Detropia” sounds like a bummer, and it definitely serves up a sad story. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (they made “Jesus Camp”) have taken some interesting angles, however — for instance, given the subject, you might imagine this movie looks all gritty and handheld and raw. You know, like a documentary.

Some of it is handheld, but Ewing and Grady have made the city look oddly beautiful, including the large empty spaces on display. There are moments when you might be watching a study of an ancient civilization, the population having disappeared long ago.

Toward the end we meet some young people who have moved to the city because of the giant apartments and the cheap rent. There’s a hint, at least, that if Detroit represents a disaster, it also may be an opportunity. At least for somebody.

“Detropia” (3½ stars)

Documentary look at Detroit and some of its citizens, who have dealt with the gradual collapse of the city from its once-booming status as the capital of the automobile. It’s a sad story but rendered in an original, impressionistic way that makes the city look oddly beautiful.

Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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