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Originally published Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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'Detropia': a nightmarish look at once-great Detroit

A review of the documentary "Detropia," a hellish portrait of contemporary Detroit, falling apart and nearly abandoned.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Detropia,' a documentary directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. 86 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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A startling, haunting documentary about a once-great city, "Detropia" is all but a eulogy for Detroit.

A former titan of America's vanished, manufacturing-based economy, with factories rolling out fleets of gleaming cars and feeding middle-class aspirations, Detroit used to look like a place people inhabited (even if strong currents of injustice and disparity, as we see in archival footage, erupted into riots in 1967).

Now, as filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (the Oscar-nominated documentary "Jesus Camp") show us, the city looks like something out of dystopian science fiction, with thousands of vacated, vandalized houses in ruined neighborhoods and an inner core full of empty high-rise buildings and darkened storefronts.

With a population of about 700,000 spread over a sprawling urban area, little money to pay for essential city services and workers forced to give ground in collective bargaining, the Detroit captured in "Detropia" looks, and is meant to look, like a snapshot of a nightmarish future for many more American cities.

Yet amid all the bleakness — which extends to Detroit's arts scene (that we glimpse via financial doldrums at the Detroit Opera House) — are signs of life. Ewing and Grady wisely focus on several intriguing individuals trying to make sense of their world, including an ever-upbeat United Auto Workers union official, a video artist and, most entertainingly, a retired schoolteacher-turned- restaurateur and plain-spoken observer of class destruction.

"What will happen when the middle class is entirely gone?" he asks.

"There will be revolution."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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