The Michigan Central Depot is a must-have shot for any documentary about Detroit.
Dustin Dwyer
Changing Gears

Detroit is a city that fascinates a lot of people.

Its story is not a simple one, though it has sometimes been a dramatic one. So maybe it’s not surprising that we seem to hear every week about a new documentary film being made about Detroit.

Changing Gears hasn’t had a chance to see all of these documentaries, but we’ve heard about an awful lot of them.

And we’ve noticed some patterns that we thought could be helpful in case you ever decide to make a documentary about the Motor City.

So, here is our DIY guide for how to make a Detroit documentary:

Opening shot: An abandoned building sits desolate in the morning light. Tufts of yellowed grass sprout up among the cracked concrete and bent steel. The grass blades wave weakly with the wind, as if in surrender.

Once the shot establishes, you can add a voice-over, and possibly some sad music.

Suggested locations:

Michigan Central Station 
Brush Park 
Packard Plant Fisher Body Plant 21

 Act One: “Paris of the Midwest”
After you visually establish that Detroit is a rotting mess of industrial decay, you’ll need to remind your audience of the glory days. Be sure to refer to Detroit as the Motor City as much as possible.

You should also use phrases like “put the world on wheels,” “gave rise to the middle class” and “Paris of the Midwest.” You can even get archival footage of Detroit on YouTube.

Once that’s established, you’ll want to cue up some ominous music. It’s time to show people the city’s rapid and depressing decline. In the past, if you were making a documentary about Detroit, now would be the time to show footage from the 1967 riots.

But using the riots as a way to describe Detroit’s decline has fallen somewhat out of fashion. You can still mention the riots, but be sure to mention that other cities had riots too, and that the city’s downfall can’t be blamed on this one set of events. Still, you’ll have to blame the decline on something, so here’s a list of possible scapegoats:

Corporations 
Globalization
The Federal Government 
The State Government
Unions
Racism 
Disinvestment 
The declining social fabric of America

Act Two: The Post-Apocalyptic Hell-Scape
This is the part of Detroit documentaries that gets people most excited, so don’t hold back. Some choose to skip the other parts of the story completely and just do an entire documentary on this. Either way, you’ll need lots more shots of abandoned places.

This time, visit some neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown. You can get shots of empty blocks, crumbled houses and graffiti. Pay special attention to the places where vegetation has started growing up through concrete. In a Detroit documentary, you can never have too many of those shots.

It’s also important to put a human face on this part of the story. You should try to find someone with big, watery eyes who’s old enough to remember the good days in Detroit. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you about bullets being shot through their window, drugs taking over their street and the inevitable hopelessness that every poor soul left in Detroit can’t help but feel.

If you’re really lucky, they’ll ask you to stop taping so they can cry. It goes without saying that this person should be extremely poor and preferably black.

End the act with a long, lingering pause, so that your audience can fully feel the visceral, unending misery that is life in today’s Detroit.

Act Three:
A Glimmer Of Hope This act is sometimes optional in Detroit documentaries. In other documentaries it’s the entire focus (but those are usually the boring documentaries). Anyway, the hopeful storyline should start off with a shot of downtown Detroit, this time with actual people in it, to show that life goes on despite all the horror.

Then you’ll want to cut to a project or business that is emblematic of what’s going right in the city. Here are some suggestions:

Avalon Bakery 
Slow’s Bar B Q 
Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes 
Detroit Denim Co. 
Any community garden 
Any artist 
TechTown 
Detroit Creative Corridor Center


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