Film tip “We Are All Detroit”: The scars of change in a car city

Greg Prior’s lifelong dream almost came true. Like his father, the engineer wanted to be immortalized as the inventor of a patent: with a plaque of honor on the mahogany wall in the Chrysler plant in Detroit. But the end of this factory in the former stronghold of the automotive industry shattered the dream. Once again, a family tradition has come to an end in this declining city.

Many good jobs are disappearing

Greg Prior’s farewell to a predetermined biography of prosperity went comparatively lightly. The disappearance of the manufacturing plants of General Motors, Cadillac and other failed giants brought much misery to the city. Thanks to numerous start-ups and solvent newcomers, it has been picking itself up again for several years. But there will probably never be tens of thousands of well-paid and secure jobs for the masses here again.

Bochum is going through something similar. The transformation of this former industrial city is far from complete. The 2014 closure of the Opel plant, where around 20,000 people worked at peak times and which symbolized the reinvention of the colliery metropolis, was decided by the “parent company” General Motors in Detroit. A good reason for the documentary filmmakers Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken to investigate what it means when entire industries disappear in both cities.

The search for a new identity

In previous works, the duo had already devoted themselves to structural change in the Ruhr area. This documentary is less about economic relationships and more about the search for identity by former “Opelans” and other people who have lost places that gave them meaning and support as well as a livelihood. Or who see how social places that benefited from industrial value creation are also doomed.

The directors got very close to the personally affected protagonists during the six years of shooting. This gives many interviews special power. There are also scientists and other experts who analytically frame the personal stories and broaden the perspective.

“We Are All Detroit” occasionally inspires nostalgia, but the past is rarely glorified. But it does show how diffuse the present and future of the locations are. The bright colors of the new DHL parcel center on the former Opel site cannot hide this fact.

Find a place and keep your dignity

Franke and Loeke show how people who come from another time try to find a place in a digitized and “smart economy” and to preserve their dignity. In a world that relies on isolation instead of the integrative power of traditional branches of industry. What people in Detroit and Bochum are experiencing has long been a global phenomenon.

Detroit, which has lost two-thirds of its population since the late 1950s, is a particularly blatant example of deindustrialization. The film does not leave them out: through the eyes of visiting groups, we wander through the remains of factories that lie around the city like stranded ships and have been left to their own devices for decades. They call this excursion trend in the USA “ruin porn”.

Extreme contrast: awakening and decay

However, the focus is also on how people there, literally on their own doorstep, create a small boost, be it with vegetable beds on fallow land. This extreme and very precisely captured contrast between awakening and decay leaves a lasting impression both aesthetically and in terms of content.

None of this is about comparing Bochum and Detroit. Rather, Franke and Loeke show how the developments in both locations correspond to each other. This is underlined by a visual language that seeks and finds optical points of reference in the constant alternation between the US state of Michigan and North Rhine-Westphalia.

Some scars can heal

Of course, there are also differences. For example the fact that the Bochum Opel plant, where around 20,000 people worked at peak times, did not rot for years, but was leveled at lightning speed to make room for new ideas. The future is marketed as promising, but most of all it brings with it precarious (and far fewer) jobs. Again and again the film captures the transformation of the huge area into a supposed service paradise. The perspective of Detroit students on this “brave new world” is particularly interesting.

What remains when something disappears? It’s often scars. Some scars can heal and open doors. This film also makes that clear.

“We Are All Detroit – Staying and Disappearing” (Germany 2021), a film by Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken, 118 minutes
Theatrical release: May 13, 2022

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