The film "Detropia" has gotten major accolades from film critics and is piling up awards, but producer/cinematographer Craig Atkinson was really excited about the Detroit opening of the documentary Thursday night in Royal Oak.
“It’s great to show a film that I was making in a theater which was one of the first theaters I ever saw movies in—the Main Art Theater,” said Atkinson, a Royal Oak native who graduated from Kimball High School in 2000.
Atkinson lives in New York now, but his parents still live in Royal Oak, along with many of the friends he grew up with.
Atkinson and directors Heidi Ewing—a Farmington native and Mercy High grad—and Rachel Grady started filming in 2009. The movie follows the story of several Detroiters “trying to survive … and make sense of what is happening to their city.” It follows a blogger, a bar owner, an auto worker, artists and more.
The film won a documentary editing award at Sundance, and New Yorker film critic David Denby calls the movie, “the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years.”
Atkinson answered a few questions for Patch on the eve of his local premiere. The film is showing at the Main Art Theatre. Ewing and Atkinson will appear Main Art on Friday, Sept. 14, for a Q&A after the 7:15 p.m. show, and they’ll introduce the 9:50 p.m. show. Ewing will appear again on Saturday, Sept. 15 for a Q&A after the 7:15pm show and to introduce the 9:50 p.m. show.
Q: Detroit has been in the national spotlight a lot in the past few years. There are now a lot of Detroit stories out there. What is the particular Detroit story you wanted to tell?
A: I, like you, spent a lot of time in the city and was very focused on the Detroit story. Heidi and Rachel and the editor saw that we could tell a national story through Detroit. Detroit has seen the writing on the wall for a very long time. Because we were solely based on manufacturing, Detroiters had a particular advantage of seeing where we’d end up as a country and experienced it first. What emerged as a main theme is where has manufacturing gone? And, more importantly, where has a middle class gone, and what are we going to do as a country to bring back a middle class?
Q: Do you have a favorite scene or favorite characters?
A: A particular scene that as very personal to me was a scene at the Local 22, the UAW. It serves the axle plant and the Detroit Poletown plant. During that scene, the men and women find out that their contract is going to be terminated and they no longer have a job. Being in that room and experiencing it with those people, I really found out what it meant to have pride in their work. … These men and women have immense pride in what they do, and they are extremely skilled and talented. All of a sudden people told them their work wasn’t worth as much … it was palpable the sense and pride and care that people had in their job.
Q: “Detropia” is getting a lot of acclaim and awards nationally, but are you nervous about its reception in Detroit? Detroiters can be tough critics of stories about Detroit. The claws will come out.
A. I think it’s perfectly natural for people to question something that’s said about where they live. I think it’s perfectly natural for people to get defensive. That’s totally fine. If people really give it a chance and sit with it for a while, what you may walk away with is you’ve heard from a population that you haven’t heard from yet. A lot of attention is paid to the creative class moving in, but we haven’t heard a lot from middle class Detroiters. They could leave if they wanted to. They could move to another state that doesn’t tax their pensions. These people could leave.
No we don’t show the RiverWalk and those overtly positive things in Detroit, but I really do see a sense of hope and pride. To me that’s a slice of Detroit and a voice we have not heard on a national level. … I think that an authentic Detroit is being heard from in the story. People who are familiar with the history and who have lived here will appreciate that and appreciate hearing from that voice.
Q: You said you see differences in the city from when you were growing up here and going to Wayne state. What do you think it will take to change Detroit?
A: One big thing can’t change a city. … In Detroit we’ve felt like we were one big car away from a comeback. The way I see it now is it isn’t going to be one company hiring 1,000 people, it’s going to be a lot of companies hiring 100 people. Or really it’s going to be a thousand companies hiring 10 people to really do it.
Q: Are you getting a nice welcome back in Royal Oak?
A: It’s been easy to connect with people I went to high school with. My parents still live in Royal Oak. It seems like everyone is coming out to support and connect with what I’ve done.