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December 22, 2009 | by  | in Arts Film |
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Grown in Detroit

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Detroit, Michigan is a city known around the world as the heart of the American automotive industry. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler call the city home, and with the automotive industry being one of the most important industries to America’s economy (it represented 3.3% of US Gross Domestic Product in 2002) its importance to Detroit’s survival follows naturally. This makes the industry’s decline over the last decade, caused and exacerbated by international competition, 9/11, the recent economic recession and the rising price of crude oil, a particular problem for The Motor City. Indeed, in their documentary Grown in Detroit, Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk waste no time showing us just how bad the automotive industry crisis has hit that city, with abandoned buildings and overgrown, vacant lots on every block. The thinning of the city’s lifeblood has made it one of the most dangerous in America and caused over one-third of its population to flee it, and the Poppenks show us that, while this is an unsavoury situation, it’s not one that can only get worse.

The specific focus of this sixty-minute documentary is The Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a high school for teenage mothers located in a largely-abandoned area of Detroit. The school puts a primacy on the study of agriculture. Teachers extol the virtues of growing your own fruits and vegetables and selling them; practical lessons are held on the ‘Farm’, a large area of abandoned land now used as an expansive garden by the school; the headmistress talks of staging a summer school programme for the girls to learn which crops sell best and how to grow them. It’s more than a little astonishing to see how effortlessly and successfully this system works, and one can’t help but marvel at what’s on display. In a city where crime, violence and failure are rife, and in a society where these girls would likely be financially and socially crippled by their having a child, the Academy stands out as a small, but nonetheless bright, glimmer of hope. The Poppenks acknowledge this and let the students, teachers and Academy speak for themselves, only revealing as much information as necessary. Rather than going into great detail about the students and the school, the regular inter-titles focus on the state of Detroit itself. Providing information that can’t be presented through images with these inter-titles, the Poppenks draw parallels between the girls and the dying city they live in, pointing out that, even in the most dire of circumstances, there is still a way out – and that way out may well be the urban farming that the Academy champions.

Grown in Detroit is an interesting film in this regard, as it seemingly works with an eye towards the bigger picture rather than towards the individual. At the same time, however, the camera is regularly called on to provide close-ups and shots that emphasise each individual, suggesting a more personal approach is, at least, desired by the filmmakers. The documentary also has a tendency to focus on certain members of the Academy’s community – the science teacher who championed agrarian-based education in the school; a single teenage mother of two given her “third chance” to attend the school; a girl who delivers her child during the documentary’s filming and comments on how the baby’s father hasn’t shown since; the Academy’s genial and progressive headmistress. If the descriptions I have given seem to be missing something, that’s because they are – names. Two of these people have their names mentioned, but there’s never any sense that their identity is important. It’s an awkward approach, because while the film’s emphasis on the Academy as a whole and the city of Detroit points to a documentary interested with the larger implications of what this remarkable school is teaching, the documentary also tries to give the film a personal, more human angle, as if to pin real people to the overarching theme. However, with no names, these people become identity-less, just faces on the street that we recognise because we’ve seen them once or twice before. They seem to exist as metaphors, not as people in and of themselves, and it renders the documentary’s human angle at once self-conscious and less effective than it should be.

That said, however, Grown in Detroit works excellently on a macro scale. As a documentary about hope, the tenacity of the human spirit, and the silver linings in even the darkest of clouds, the Poppenks’ tale of The Motor City and its less-privileged residents is excellent, stunningly shot and well-devised. The only thing that trips the film up is the not-so-well-measured individual angle, and were that rectified, Grown in Detroit could well be amazing.

Grown in Detroit
Directed by Manfred Poppenk and Mascha Poppenk

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