'Detropia' and 'Five Broken Cameras' Offer Intimate Portraits of Communities in Decline and Conflict

There are more than 100,000 homes standing vacant in the city of Detroit, many of them fallen into what can only be characterized as ruin. Combined with equally vast tracts of crumbling industrial infrastructure, these acres of shambles have come to function as the epicenter of "ruin porn," documented and promoted by photographers, gawked at on the Web by urban- and suburbanites the world over, and even occasionally toured in person by curious outsiders, like the two young Swiss tourists who show up in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's new documentary Detropia (Docurama). While the woman who fills their order at a coffee shop is polite, it's also clear that she regards their interest in Detroit's "decay" as, well, less than polite. After all, she lives there, along with about 700,000 others, and Ewing and Grady's film is as much about the people who constitute Detroit as it is about the city's physical and economic wreckage.

Of course, there is no getting around Detroit's ravaged status. If you haven't visited, or haven't seen images beforehand, it's almost difficult to believe that the urban chaos and wrack depicted exists in America. Using only their footage and a handful of title cards—no narration—Ewing and Grady sketch how the city came to be that way: its rise as the pumping heart of industrial America as well as its fall when domestic manufacturing went into decline. But mostly they explore its difficult present and uncertain near-future. With a vast city to keep afloat and a plummeting population, Mayor Dave Bing considers consolidating residents in more central areas to make it easier and more affordable to maintain faltering city services. Proposals are also floated to transform the Motor City's vast vacant areas into urban farms, though the cameras catch at least one local wondering how, exactly, hundreds of new acres under cultivation are going to fix the overwhelming problems. Meanwhile, the town's weakening grip on the auto industry threatens its cultural life (the civic opera, featured in several scenes, is heavily underwritten by the Big Three) and its very livelihood. Ewing and Grady spend a lot of time following George McGregor, a garrulous local union president, as he oversees contract negotiations that inevitably hack away at pay, benefits, and jobs for those who try to support their families via the city's largest employers.

McGregor and a handful of other hardy Detroiters make up the faint, wavy throughlines that Ewing and Grady use to give their film what little narrative momentum it has; at times their impressionistic approach succumbs to the same entropic forces as its subject. The hopeful tilt they try to tack on near the end—that Detroit's fall has left it a great place to create and a well of resourcefulness—feels a bit hollow given the doomy outlook established elsewhere. Still, as a snapshot of our evolution as a nation, Detropia makes compelling viewing.

Five Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber) is less snapshot and more home movie—shot on the literal front lines of Israeli-Palestinian strife on the West Bank of the Gaza River. As the opening minutes of this Oscar-nominated documentary explain, Emad Burnat lives in the village of Bil'in with his wife and sons. When his youngest son, chubby-cheeked Gibreel, is born, he buys a video camera to record proud-papa moments. Soon, however, he is rigorously documenting the construction of an Israeli settlement nearby, and the protests that the villagers mount against the barrier that goes up, cutting them off from land that they have farmed for decades. The film is called Five Broken Cameras because Burnat is right there in the thick of the clashes, viewfinder clapped to eye, and when rocks and tear gas and bullets go flying, things tend to get broken.

Burnat's surprisingly polished footage, shot over five years, was edited by Guy Davidi, an Israeli, who shares a co-directing credit. Together they have created a remarkable film that decidedly reflects one side of the conflict but offers such an intimate account that it's impossible to dismiss. Burnat is there as angry villagers march (their protests remain nonviolent other than a few rocks thrown against the side of armored cars) or build an outpost on the Israeli side of the barrier, and he keeps filming as Israeli troops respond with live rounds and tear gas. (It seems impossible that this much tear gas exists, much less that it's used with this frequency and in this volume.) He films as a fellow cameraman is hit in the face with a tear-gas bomb. He films as a friend—blindfolded, bound, and peaceful in custody—is shot in the leg at close range by an Israeli soldier. He films as not one but two of his cameras are hit by bullets while he's holding them to his face. He films as his best friend is shot in the chest and killed instantly.

Burnat tracks his story not only via his destroyed equipment, but also through the growing Gibreel, whose first words include "wall" and "cartridge," who is seen idly playing with a spent tear-gas bomb, and who grows up knowing no other reality but the one his father's footage captures. Burnat remains resolute in the end, but he, and you, spare a thought for the kind of world Gibreel's likely to live in when his son is born.


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