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Detroit: Ruin of a City

A road movie and documentary by Michael Chanan and George Steinmetz

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Detroit: Ruin of a City


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A road movie about Detroit and the automobile industry, a documentary about making a documentary about a city. Detroit, known as Motor City, once the fourth largest city in the United States, home of the Ford Motor Company, General Motors and other major car manufacturers, is nowadays a city in serious decline, which has lost more than half its population and much of its real estate. Until recently, residents would celebrate'Devil's Night' on the eve of Halloween by going out and setting fire to dilapidated buildings. Houses, factories, stores, office blocks, theatres, even the railway station, stand in ruins or have disappeared altogether, leaving vast empty lots that have returned to nature. The home of Motown music, Detroit is also the most segregated major city in the United States and one of the poorest, struggling to provide public services for its needy inhabitants.

With the participation of Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, Detroit-born writer Dan Georgakas, Detroit photographer Lowell Boileau, and a variety of local residents, the film looks back over the history of the city in the twentieth century: over the rise and fall of the social system identified by social theorists as 'Fordism'; the way the city was shaped by the automobile; and its decline following the deindustrialisation which began in the 1950s, leaving it ill-adapted to the post-Fordist society of the epoch of globalisation.Much of the story is told through a rich variety of archive footage - of the Ford plants, mass protests of the Depression years, Diego Rivera painting his famous mural 'Detroit Industry', the struggle for trade union rights, the riots of 1943 and 1967 - through which the film charts the battle over the image of the city and its industry that began when the Ford Motor Company started making its own films back in 1913.

Subtitles: Spanish, Chinese

Made with the assistance of University of Michigan and ASA/NSF (USA) and University of the West of England and AHRB (UK)


by Michael Chanan and George Steinmetz with music by Michael Nyman

Michael Chanan is a seasoned documentary film-maker, author of books on both film and music, and Professor of Film & Video at Roehampton University, London. He began his professional life as a music critic, making his debut as a documentarist with a couple of films on contemporary music for BBC2 in the early 1970s. In the 80s, after a stint teaching film at the then Polytechnic of Central London, he directed a number of films on Latin American subjects, mainly for Channel Four. He returned to teaching in the 90s in the Media School of the then London College of Printing. In 2000, he was Visiting Professor in the Literature Programme at Duke University, USA, and then joined the School of Cultural Studies at the University of the West of England where he became Professor of Cultural Studies in 2002, before moving to Roehampton University in 2007.

Professor Steinmetz is the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Germanic Language and Literatures at the University of Michigan and a Corresponding Member of the Centre de Sociologie européenne, Paris. He is a social theorist and a historical sociologist of states, empires, and social science. He is currently working on two main projects. The first is a reconstruction of sociology as historical socioanalysis. The second is a project on the historical sociology of sociology in Europe, North America, and postcolonial Africa. Here he looks at sociologists who have analyzed, criticized, and advised colonial and informal empires during the past 150 years. He has also worked on Germany and several of its former colonies (Namibia, Samoa, and Qingdao, China), on social policy at the local and central levels in imperial Germany, on visual sociology, and on the rise and fall of the city of Detroit.

Professor Steinmetz is the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Germanic Language and Literatures at the University of Michigan and a Corresponding Member of the Centre de Sociologie européenne, Paris. He is a social theorist and a historical sociologist of states, empires, and social science. He is currently working on two main projects. The first is a reconstruction of sociology as historical socioanalysis. The second is a project on the historical sociology of sociology in Europe, North America, and postcolonial Africa. Here he looks at sociologists who have analyzed, criticized, and advised colonial and informal empires during the past 150 years. He has also worked on Germany and several of its former colonies (Namibia, Samoa, and Qingdao, China), on social policy at the local and central levels in imperial Germany, on visual sociology, and on the rise and fall of the city of Detroit.

"politically astute film-making....inquiring and intelligent and enquiring viewing" - Time Out, London

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