Spotlight On: Detropia‘s Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Posted February 29, 2012

The persuasive, political, polemical documentary film is by now a familiar genre. It has become an essential part of our discourse, and it frequently produces boring, heavy handed, and cliched results. The 2012 True/False Film Fest features Detropia, the work of two filmmakers who have succeeded in breathing new life into an often stale form. Over the course of their four films together, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have expanded our understanding of what a political doc should be. While their films react to our political culture’s painful open wounds, what they finally offer are powerful and poetic glimpses of human striving under the weight of profound social, political, and ideological burdens.

Their first film, The Boys of Baraka (2005), opens in Baltimore, which is revealed in the film as one of modern America’s islands of hopelessness. Children grow up here in the shadow of the drug trade and its associated violence and addiction. Boys begins with a look at male adolescence in this environment, characterized by frantic outbursts and violent macho posturing. Death or incarceration loom on the horizon for many of these children, and crowded public schools are a complete failure. (At the time the film  was made, 76 percent of African American males in Baltimore did not graduate from high school). The film tracks the journey of several boys who volunteer to leave Baltimore for an all-male boarding school in Baraka, Kenya. Through their radical change in environment (and skilled interventions by the school’s staff), the boys begin to believe in their own futures.

The film’s most engaging sequence occurs in the aftermath of a fight at the Baraka school. Derek and Montrey are engaged in an ongoing feud. The teachers take them to an isolated camp, and force them to assemble a tent together as a trust exercise. They attempt to leave the boys alone together for twenty minutes, but Derek refuses to make peace. He tries to act tough, but his face expresses nothing but fear. Their teacher begins by taking a hard line, but suddenly, shockingly, it is Montrey who takes on the role of counsellor. He tells Derek about the opportunity the camp offers and begins speaking frankly about his own life. “I know my mother told me just try to find a better way,” he says. “Cause she said she’d never want me to be like my father.”

The team’s best-known film, Jesus Camp (2006), explores the culture wars of evangelical Christians in the U.S. The film centers on the Children on Fire summer camp, where children are asked to make a lifetime commitment to the war against evils including abortion, unrighteous government, homosexuality, and Harry Potter. Their covenant is sealed in frantic and tearful collective religious experiences, involving speaking in tongues, choreographed dancing, and the symbolic smashing of ceramic cups with hammers.

Jesus Camp plays in large part as a horror film. But beyond the shocking rhetoric and behavior of its subjects—as well as the film’s absurdist comedic interludes (children praying before a cardboard cutout of President G.W. Bush, to name but one)—the film holds other surprises for its viewers. The campers’ surprisingly eloquent theological and political rhetoric, viewed alongside their normal, childlike playful behavior, creates an uncanny juxtaposition. And the camp’s director, Becky Fischer, is a deeply compelling subject. As we watch her preparations and post-camp reflections, her character is gradually revealed: she is equal parts frank, frightening, sincere, and sad.

Ewing and Grady’s third film, 12th and Delaware (2010) clinically documents the front lines of the abortion debate. This chasm in our political discourse is a given a forceful visual representation in the film’s titular image: a two-lane road separating two ordinary single-story buildings, which we immediately perceive exist in completely different moral universes. The two buildings are the Women’s World Medical Center, which provides safe abortions, and the Pregnancy Care Center, which tries to prevent abortions through a campaign of “forceful persuasion.” The struggle that plays out seems inherently and hopelessly perpetual. In the middle, we meet the frightened and uncertain young women at the center of the film, as they struggle for survival.

The film’s most powerful character is Anne, the operator of the pro-life Pregnancy Care Center. In what she sees as her struggle to save lives, she has no problem rationalizing some rather unpleasant tactics. She invites women into the Center under the pretext that it’s an abortion clinic, makes extremely dubious claims (abortions cause breast cancer; it induces physical sickness), and provides gruesome images. No matter how repugnant the viewer may find her behavior, the film finds many ways to complicate and confuse their moral sentiments. She’s clearly comfortable in front of a camera, and the viewer becomes party to her nervousness before dealing with a tough client, her real pain upon learning that she failed to prevent an abortion, and, above all, her driving need to continue in the struggle.

This year’s Detropia returns to a major topic of their first film, the tragic decline of the American city. The viewer is taken on a tour of the Detroit of the great recession, a city plagued by unemployment and poverty following the collapse of its manufacturing base. In Dismantling Detroit (a thematic preview of Detropia for the New York Times’s “Op-Docs” website), Ewing and Grady present the city’s deterioration literally, as unemployed men rip apart an abandoned industrial plant and sell the pieces for scrap metal. The voices of political commentators overlay the images, assuring us that Detroit’s problems are America’s problems.

The short highlights another aspect of Ewing and Grady’s art that’s worth pointing out: their masterful use of sound. In all of their films, music blends in and out of a layered sonic landscape. A hum on uncertainty frequently invites us to a place of mild unease alongside cogent political reflection.


—Dan Steffen