Publisher's notebook: Detroit, celluloid city

It’s awards season in Hollywood, a time when my antenna usually turns west to follow nominations and feast on film reviews. But this year is different. This year, I’m much more interested in movies coming out of Detroit, about Detroit. 

From feature-length documentaries to short-form video, Detroit is getting a lot of screen time these days. Sometimes on the big screen, but more often through the digital streams of our Facebook and Twitter feeds -- a mix of art, propaganda and cinema verite. Some videos ask ambitious questions; others answer with intimate portraits of people and places showing a new way. If it’s a Detroit we recognize and are eager to share, we each become film distributors, pushing out You Tube and Vimeo links to our friends around the globe. 

Whether you’re SO over Detroit as a post-industrial poster child, or you think there’s still meat on that bone, there’s no denying that Detroit is a rich subject and new digital storytellers are emerging every day. 

Here are some recent favorites. Let’s queue ‘em up:

After the Factory
Premiered last week to a sold-out crowd at the Detroit Film Theatre, this thoughtful new documentary by Philip Lauri of Detroit Lives! presents two industrial cities – Detroit, Michigan and Lodz, Poland -- in the process of rethinking their futures. Sparked by an intercontinental email exchange, Lauri and his crew Kickstarted their way to Poland last year and are returning this week for a multi-city European tour. "My hope," says Lauri, "as these two cities move forward, they will become models for other urban centers facing similar conditions." The film stars local sages Grace Lee Boggs, Chazz Miller, Vince Keenan, Dan Austin, Mark Covington, Yusef Shakur and others.
Lemonade: Detroit
Directed by Erik Proulx and funded by over 2,000 micro-producers, this project began with a simple premise: "Instead of sensationalizing blight, Lemonade: Detroit will sensationalize hope, told through the intensely personal stories of people who are reinventing themselves and their communities." After the 2010 trailer, Proulx produced a 17-minute short now making its way around the country to make the case for a feature-length film. Even after the tragic passing of poet David Blair (whose appearance really makes this film sing, imho), Proulx presses on, eager to tell more stories. Buy a frame for a dollar here.

Grown in Detroit
This award-winning 2010 film by Mascha & Manfred Poppenk – two Dutchies who made Detroit their second home – takes us inside the Catherine Ferguson Academy’s urban gardening curriculum for pregnant and parenting teenagers. As students learn about nutrition and agriculture, they also gain skills for economic empowerment in this inspiring "back to the roots" story about post-industrial adaptation. If you missed local screenings, you can watch online here.

Detroit Lives
This three-part series by Palladium Boots explores how a new generation of Detroiters are seeing beyond the city’s adversities to new opportunities for creativity. Actor Johnny Knoxville tours the town, talking to local artists and entrepreneurs along the way. (Part 1: 10:27 min; Part 2: 8:24 min; Part 3: 12:00 min.)

People Mover
This short film by Toby Barlow, Dorota Coy and Brian Merkel of 4exit4 Productions captures 24 local artists, cooks, thinkers and musicians performing on a train as it loops around Detroit’s downtown business district. Watch and be moved by Detroit’s creative spirit. (17:44 min.)

Detroit Bike City
We love this video by local filmmaker Alex Gallegos about the Motor City sans motor. He describes it simply as a "short doc on riding bikes in Detroit." We think it’s that and so much more. (13:52 min.)

9 Businesses
In Detroit, small businesses are rapidly taking root in neighborhoods all over the city. From coffee shops and galleries, to bakeries and custom sneaker designers, this short film by 4exit4 highlights nine businesses that are changing our community, one storefront at a time. (6:28 min.)

Motor City Pride
Is Detroit welcoming? This video says yes with a look at Detroit’s vibrant LGBT community through the eyes of local cultural leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and residents. Yet another 4exit4 production with a special appearance by the late great David Blair. (7:16 min.)

Homage to Detroit
Made for TEDxDetroit 2011, this film is a bewitching interpretation of Jessica Care Moore’s powerful poem by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Stephen McGee. "Don’t write eulogies for Detroit / No uninspired folk song of gloom / Some of us are coming home to show the world how we make the planet move." (4:26 min.)

Detroit City Futbol League
Detroit can be a serious place, so sometimes it’s nice just to laugh. This video by Terry Parris Jr. for Model D introduces us to the ambitious men and women of Detroit’s co-ed adult recreational soccer league. Best line: "I’m playing because I heard there was free beer.” (4:59 min.)

How is the availability of cheap, vacant space fostering collaboration and community in Detroit? This video by Charlie Kelly takes us inside a warehouse-turned-creative incubator for social entrepreneurs and artists. (If you want to see more of those amazing jit dancers, watch here.) (2:56 min.)

I love this time-lapse video of Philip Lauri and Chazz Miller painting a mural on a building in New Center at Brush and Milwaukee. It says so much without saying anything at all, know what I mean? (6:04 min.)

Sugar House
I dare you not to be thirsty after watching this uber-cinematic video about Corktown’s new craft cocktail bar. One of many beautiful films by The Work. (3:10 min.)

See It Through
Filmmaker Jonathan Cherry spent a week capturing the spirit of the city for Boat Magazine, setting his portraits to a poem by Poet Laureate of Michigan, Edgar Albert Guest. There’s a great story behind the warm smile of the parking meter reader, but I’ll have to share that another time. (1:42 min.)

Kresge Art Fellows
With all the international press about Detroit’s art scene, it’s nice to meet the people who are making the art. Last year, Stephen McGee shot 37 beautiful video portraits of the Kresge Fellows, including Marcus Belgrave, Invincible, Steve Hughes and Tyree Guyton. At a minute or so each, you can watch them all back-to-back in under an hour.

Speakers Bureau
Produced by Detroit Lives! for the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, these short videos profile local firms driving Detroit’s creative economy. "Don’t call it a comeback," says DC3. "We’ve been doing this for years." Featured businesses include Hamilton Anderson, Skidmore Studio and Cyberoptix Tie Lab, with more on the way.

Donna Terek’s Detroit
Donna’s videos for the Detroit News so beautifully capture the city’s authenticity and vitality, from the quirky to the sublime. Favorites include her pieces on the Marche du Nain Rouge, the Detroit Party Marching Band and Tashmoo Biergarten. You’ll feel like you’re right there with her in the crowd.

Model D TV
Since 2005, video producer Tom Hendrickson has been documenting stories of neighborhood development in Detroit, one business and building at a time. Faves include Detroit Soup in Mexicantown and Curl Up & Dye in Midtown. Watch more on YouTube and Vimeo

These are some of my favorites -- now, it’s your turn. What are the best films and videos you’ve seen about Detroit? Go ahead, share links in the comment section below. We want to know…

Claire Nelson's most recent piece for Model D, Unlocking the City, appeared in December.  
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Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.