Thursday, July 4, 2013

Documentary: Detropia

No one needs to be told the devastating effect the loss of manufacturing overseas has had on American (and Canadian) industry, workers and ultimately North American society. In Detropia, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady film local residents to profile the economic decline of the city of Detroit, demonstrating how Detroit is representative of the effects the shifting global economy has had and continues to have on North Americans.

Ewing and Grady focus on three citizens in particular, George McGregor who is President of the UAW Local 22, Tommy Stephens owner of the Raven a blues nightclub, and Crystal Starr a video blogger.

McGregor's insights focus on the automobile industry which made Detroit a prime manufacturing city in the early half of the 20th century.As he drives by the abandoned Cadillac assembly plant, McGregor reminisces about how large the plant was and how now it is being used to store dumpsters. After the plant was relocated to Mexico, with the workers unemployed, the neighbourhood left too.

Similarly, American Axle has now outsourced 2000 jobs to Mexico. It offered its employees the option of wage reductions to make the American plant "viable". They refused and American Axle closed the Detroit plant.

In the past ten years, the state of Michigan has lost 50% of its manufacturing jobs - 50,000 factories have closed and 6 million workers have lost their jobs. Of course this trend is not restricted to Michigan or the United States, as Canada has seen similar closures and job losses.

With the loss of its manufacturing base, the population of Detroit has moved on and away. In 1930, the city of Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. Today it is the fastest shrinking city. The 2010 census shows Detroit's population dropped to 713,000 - the lowest in 100 years. The population loss means large areas of the city are under-inhabited.

Because of the shrinking population, the city of Detroit can no longer afford to service these largely abandoned areas. The city is 139 square miles with 40 square miles of potential vacant land. This has led Detroit Mayor, David Bing, to bring in urban planners to help the city decide how best to restructure land use.  This means rethinking the way a city normally uses its land. Bing proposes that residents in neighbourhoods that are dying, be relocated and the empty areas be used for urban farming. However, this plan did not sit well with residents who accused the mayor of  "downsizing" the city. Detropia captures their reactions at meetings and individually.

One of the most engaging parts of this documentary is Tommy Stephen's visit to the Detroit Auto Show. At the show he views many of GM and Chrysler's newest products. The big three automakers are finally on the rebound, after a US government bailout and new employee wage cuts. Stephens goes over to investigate the BYD (Build Your Dream) booth, a Chinese automaker at the show marketing its competition to the Volt. The BYD retails for $28K while the Volt sells for $40K. When Stephens confronts the Chevrolet showmen, they don't have an answer as to why there is such a price difference. A year later, Chevrolet announces it is moving its Volt factory to China, in exchange for sharing its intellectual property.

Of course the answer to this question which is never openly expressed in the film but only hinted at by George McGregor, is that American industry throughout the first 80 years of the 20th century, following the business models set out by Henry Ford, paid its workers a "living wage" - creating a middle class who brought the products made by other manufacturers and who were able to buy a home, educate their children and so forth. China, with its huge human capital, has no need to invest in such policies. Instead, workers are poorly paid, live in company dorms, eating in company cafeterias. The pertinent question then becomes, "Should we lower our standard of living to compete with the Chinese?"

As this documentary demonstrates, the city of Detroit is an example of what many opposed to the NAFTA agreement in the 1980's maintained all along - that free trade would not only lower worker's wages and cause the serious job losses as companies flee to areas with lower labour costs, but  would also eventually lower the standard of living in North America. Detroit, along with many other cities in North America, has seen exactly this happen with the development of the global economy. Instead of bringing poorer countries up to our standards of employment, workers are gradually seeing hard fought rights being whittled away in the name of profit-taking. Meanwhile, abuses are rife in countries like China, Bangladesh and India.

The two most compelling voices in this documentary are Tommy Stephens and Crystal Starr. Stephens is eloquent and gets that the problem is complex with no easy solutions. Starr takes viewers on a journey through some of the abandoned places in Detroit, speculating on their past glory and on the people who might have lived there or passed through. The absence of a narrator leads the viewer to extrapolate and make his/her own conclusions.

The documentary got its title from the merging of the words Detroit and Utopia, the later word was graffiti on an abandoned auto parts building in which the Auto Parts sign was changed to utopia on the basis of missing letters and painted in letters.

The poster image for the documentary shows two artists, who make their home in Detroit, wearing gold painted gloves and gas masks in front of an abandoned mansion. It is a allusion to the fact that people can survive and adapt to life in Detroit. The people who seem to be doing so are young people who see the city as providing the freedom to experiment.

The documentary's trailer effectively captures the essence of this 2012 film:

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