Documentary film “We are all Detroit”: What connects Detroit and Bochum

Es begins with a poem. Citizens of the US car city of Detroit and the former Opel city of Bochum read passages from “It’s all vain” by Andreas Gryphius. The text from the time of the Thirty Years’ War is about transience. A transience that connects both cities. The Motor City on Lake Erie, which has been suffering from the decline of the auto industry for decades, and the Ruhr metropolis, which also lost thousands of jobs after the Opel plant there closed in 2014.

In their new film “We are all Detroit”, the German documentary filmmakers Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken try to trace parallels and differences in the effects of forced structural change on both sides of the Atlantic using reports from those affected. An ambitious task that is partly successful.

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There’s Richard Crabb, owner of a small hardware store in Detroit, who remembers the good old days of the lost industrial city and who ends up selling his business as customers flee and gentrification threatens to absorb his neighborhood. And there are the former owners of a restaurant across from the old Opel factory, who tell of how hundreds of guests used to be served during the breaks in operation. In Bochum, too, the protagonists constantly wallow in memories.

Everything was fine before

But the film rarely goes beyond a series of interesting individual scenes. The scenes line up too formulaic and half-baked. What the filmmakers want to communicate or tell remains open. There is a little criticism of capitalism here and there. When a Detroit resident says that when companies can no longer make a profit, companies just flee – without thinking about those who are left behind. But the topic will not be pursued any further.

In order to let their protagonists speak as unadulterated as possible in their deliberations and realities of life, Loeken and Franke dispense with moderation and background information. Given the complexity of the subject, a bold but doable task – if the people in the film were able to carry the almost two-hour plot. However, this is not the case because the producers – as with the poem at the beginning – fall back too much on predictable and sometimes seemingly constructed scenes.

Of course, there’s a drive through Detroit with former Chrysler engineer Greg Prior, who then stands in front of a demolished factory site and tells how proud he was of the work he used to do here and how sad it makes him to be here now everything is ruined. Similar scenes abound in Bochum. The tenor is always: Everything used to be good, but unfortunately not anymore. These are scenes that one could formulate almost formulaically in a documentary film seminar. The film feels like a drawing board at times.

The fact that such scenes seem so familiar is also due to the fact that the topic “The Decline of Detroit” has almost been overworked in recent years. The images of the post-apocalyptic former metropolis with its abandoned buildings, sarcastically called “ruin pornography”, have already been seen in numerous other documentaries in which the typical “Detroit” characters also appear again and again.

technology of the future

And so the black resident who grows fruit and vegetables on fallow land (“urban farming”) should not be missing from Loekens and Franke’s film either. There are projects of this kind in many places in the city and journalists like to visit them, because in all the social tragedy one also wants to tell a positive story. But in places the protagonists act like character templates that usually say exactly what the viewer expects. Rarely are there breaks or surprises. And the images of empty production halls and offices in Bochum and derelict buildings in Detroit are interspersed far too often to impress.

But that doesn’t mean that “We are all Detroit” doesn’t have its strengths. The planning of the new building project at the old Opel location in Bochum was continuously monitored for more than six years. The fact that the authors come from the area and have already made several films about structural change in the Ruhr area has an effect here.

Under the futuristic-sounding name “Mark 51 7”, managers in Bochum promise a new technology and production site for the future. Of course, there are also classic meaningless bullshit formulations – such as “Champion meets champion and innovation meets innovation”, which a manager recites. The punch line: In the end, only an unadorned DHL center is created, where, to make matters worse, work is also being done on the automation of operations.

The fact that the DHL representative admits this is thanks to the precise questioning of the authors, who are personally identifiable here in one of the few places in the film. In the future, the new jobs that former Prime Minister Armin Laschet (CDU) calls future-proof in the film could also be eliminated. With so much chutzpah, the viewer smiles and wonders if the film could not have been a more investigative and political documentary where Loekens and Franke could have used their expertise better.

needs of the hipster class

But the idea of ​​automation is hardly pursued any further. Just as little as the question of the macro-economic and macro-political causes of the structural change in both cities. Its effects are also only marginally discussed. Most of the protagonists in the film apparently got through the structural crisis comparatively well. The former Opel factory worker Guido Schulte-Schüren, for example, started his own business as a farmer. He mentions a colleague who didn’t find a job for years and just lost his current job after six months. Unfortunately, this colleague does not appear in the film.

2014 closed: Opel plant in Bochum

2014 closed: Opel plant in Bochum

Source: Film production Loekenfranke 2021

What is revealing, however, is the systemic difference in how the two municipalities in Germany and the USA deal with the collapse of industry. While in Bochum transfer companies at least partially prevented unemployment and the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the city of Bochum and companies are working together on plans for subsequent use, in Detroit – which was temporarily under the state’s receivership due to lack of money – is apparently solely dependent on investors. And according to the thoughts of the US urban economist Richard Florida, they concentrate more on the needs of a well-educated urban Hispter class than on the needs of impoverished factory workers.

Anyone looking for an in-depth examination of questions of deindustrialization and its consequences will not find what they are looking for in “We are all Detroit”. But as an introduction to the subject and for the sake of the strong images (for those inexperienced in Detroit), the documentation is still good.

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