Documentary Paints a Bleak but Fair Picture of Detroit’s Decline

As organized philanthropy descends upon Detroit for this year’s conference of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, we will confront first-hand one of the most challenging urban environments in our nation. One of the trickiest issues for foundations is how to balance the way we represent the grim reality of cities like Detroit with inspiring accounts of heroic efforts to revive the city.

Likewise, journalists and documentary filmmakers face a similar dilemma: how to tell hard truths they observe in their reporting, without having to tailor their accounts to advance the public relations demands of philanthropic benefactors, which are becoming increasingly prominent players in an otherwise declining news industry.

Nowhere is this tension more clear than the case of Detropia, which will be seen in a national broadcast on PBS next week. Participants in the CEP conference in Detroit will have the chance to get a sneak preview tonight, after the opening reception.

Detropia recently won the Henry Hampton Award for social documentary film in the 46th Annual Film and Video Festival, a joint project of the Council on Foundations and Media Impact Funders.

But a previous screening last year with foundation and nonprofit leaders in Detroit touched a raw nerve.  “They just rejected the film outright,” according to Rachel Grady, who directed the film with Heidi Ewing. “They told us we missed the story; we missed the dozens of rays of light that were being planted all over Detroit.”

Grady says that they did look for stories of gritty determination – and indeed some of those stories are included in the film – but she says that those stories were overshadowed by the enormity of the problems facing Detroit.

Foundation leaders will have a chance to judge for themselves how well Detropia balances the story of modern Detroit in tonight’s screening, while everyone else will have a chance next week. And funders who would like to engage more directly with the filmmakers will hear from Grady and Ewing in person at the Media Impact Forum, which will take place June 4 at the Ford Foundation.

This post is excerpted from the current edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, where I write an occasional column.


Vincent Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a member of the board of directors at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @VinceDaily.

Hear Vince speak at our national conference, Pursuing Results, and join the discussion at #CEP13.

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