Sundance London Docs Explore the Demise of the American Dream and its Toxic Aftermath

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia

Holly Willis

The American Dream took a real beating in 2011, leaving the national ethos bruised and battered beyond recognition. The Occupy Movement dealt the most sustained and visible blows to the consumerist ideals that have created vast economic inequality, with its nationwide demonstrations of mass discontent with the entrenched systems of power and corruption.

While protesters were camped out in cities across the country, several social justice-minded filmmakers were putting the finishing touches on their hard-hitting non-fiction features, each of which questions the tenets most central to our national identity and fundamental beliefs – notions of hard work, success, generational leveling up, the centrality of home ownership, and overall national prosperity and success.

These filmmakers now arrive at Sundance eager to continue the conversation about the viability of the American Dream and prepared to leverage what appears to be a national inclination for broad scale questioning and change.

Part 1: Detropia: As the Motor City Goes, So Goes America

While Greenfield chronicles personal loss in her film, New York-based directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture an entire city’s sense of struggle in their lyrical portrait of Detroit in their film Detropia.

Ewing grew up in Detroit, and had become alarmed not only by the fact that the city has the highest unemployment rate in the country, but also by the increasing number of houses for sale or those simply abandoned and the sense that the city seemed empty of people.

“Rachel and I recognized that it might not be that Detroit was this crazy exception or isolated incident,” says Ewing. “It was suffering in an acute way a lot of things that other cities were experiencing and we thought, what if Detroit isn’t the exception?”

“Detroit is a city of massive extremes,” continues Grady. “It has had massive success and massive failure; it has massive aspirations and hope, and then years of the doldrums. Everything that can happen to a city has happened to Detroit, and for us, it seemed to be a bellwether.”

To capture the city in all its diversity, the pair talked to literally hundreds of Detroit residents, young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed. The filmmakers ultimately organized the film around subjects — a young blogger, a union leader, a bar owner and a pair of scrap metal collectors—whose thematic vignettes provide the film’s narrative structure.

“Every character is on a journey and asking, ‘What happened to my city?’ But they all love Detroit, and they don’t want to leave,” says Grady. “Detroit represents the end of something, and the beginning of something new. What that will be, no one knows. We’re at the end of a 100-year cycle in this country; and the sense of what will come is exciting.”

The film is visually striking, with painterly compositions that aim to capture thematic extremes through sharp visual contrasts. Inter-titles highlight chronicle the city’s devastating statistics. For all of its bleak details, though, the film maintains an undercurrent of optimism.

“The hope in the film is in the characters and in their persistence,” asserts Grady, “They stubbornly believe everything is going to work out. And you know what? That works. It’s not sexy or satisfying when you want someone to come up with a magic bullet. But humanity prevails. The American Dream will be revised. It was never sustainable and now we need to rethink it.”

The American Dream is often understood to be about individual expectations regarding success. It also reflects a national mythology about the kind of country we inhabit, one characterized by democracy, privilege, and progress. That mythos, however, is contradicted by certain very real failings captured by two other films, namely Finding North, a film about the egregious increase in hunger across America by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, and The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki, about the devastating impact of drugs.

Part 2: Finding North: Facing Up to Widespread Food Insecurity

Finding North introduces several different stories of hunger, including that of Rosie, a young girl from rural Colorado who routinely goes to school with piercing hunger pangs, and Barbie, a single mom living in Philadelphia’s inner-city struggling to feed her two children. It also showcases a broad range of experts who, together, clearly demonstrate the return of hunger in the early 1980s as a major national issue – after its eradication in the 1970s – and sketch the problem’s systemic infrastructure. The filmmakers draw connections among Reagan-era budget cuts, current farm subsidies, the devastation caused by processed foods, and the lasting impact of poor nutrition on a growing swath of Americans.

The film also introduces a nuanced vocabulary for talking about a complex issue, contrasting hunger with food insecurity, for example. “We went back and forth about this word,” admits Silverbush, noting that ‘food insecurity’ was originally a euphemism adopted by the government to mask the more visceral reality of ‘hunger.’ ”But we came to respect it because it designates a large group of people who spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out where their next meal will come from.” She continues, “These people may never feel hunger, but they’re getting such poor nutrition that they can’t lead a normal life. The typical diet is chips, cookies, and soda; and kids on this diet are not receiving adequate nutrition to grow. So the issue isn’t simply about hunger.”

At one point early in the film, Jeff Bridges, founder of the End Hunger Network, asks if the America where a large percentage of its population goes hungry every day is the America we want to live in. He also talks about a kind of shame – not individual shame, but national shame – related to hunger and poverty, and says that as a nation, we’re in denial. Silverbush and Jacobson hope to confront that denial. “The documentary Hunger in America, which aired on CBS in 1968, had an immediate and real impact,” says Jacobson. “The problem was shocking to people, but fixing it was doable. We are now in a similar situation. Given what we know, we can do this.”

Silverbush concurs, referencing the positive impact of the Occupy Movement. “When we started making this film a few years ago and I would tell people what I was working on, their eyes would glaze over and they’d get a pious look on their faces. But today, people perk up. This film is about economic justice, and that is the central issue of our time.”

Part 3: The House I Live In: How Drugs Became a Weapon of Mass Inequality

The House I Live In also tackles a long-standing major national problem – namely the devastation of an entire group of people by drugs. The film manages to illustrate that problem in all its complexity through interviews with people on all sides of it, including victims of drug abuse, drug dealers, police officers, jail wardens, prosecutors, judges, and scholars.

“This is the most personal film I’ve ever made,” says Jarecki, whose previous work includes Why We Fight, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Jarecki narrates The House I Live In in his own voice-over, explaining that his film was inspired by Nannie Jeter, an African American woman who worked for his family and whose prospects were severely limited, due to factors beyond her control.

The two families were close, says Jarecki, who grew up alongside Jeter’s kids. “We were this happy band of colorblind, optimistic, idealistic kids,” recalls the filmmaker. “I supposed that growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights movement that that’s what life would be like, and that we were part of a post-racial era. But I gradually came to see that this wasn’t the case. While my life was one of privilege, where I could make films and have a sky’s-the-limit view of possibilities, I saw the perspective of her children very narrowed by injustice, and this was vested in America’s war on drugs, which picked up where the damages of pre-Civil Rights America left off.”

Jarecki’s film documents a completely broken system and, like Finding North, contains a call to action. “I have a lot of faith in the public,” says Jarecki. “We went through a bubble of prosperity and thought we’d arrived as a nation. It made us feel prosperous, so no one looked at what was happening to U.S. trade policies. We entered a completely illegal war; and the American people said almost nothing in protest. But we find ourselves a nation of angry people a decade later, as reflected in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party. What we’re seeing is the beginning, not the end.”

Jarecki plans to extend this sense of optimism through the Sundance Film Festival and beyond, with a large scale campaign around the film and very active participation in its distribution, inspired in part by Ralph Nader and a discussion following the screening of an earlier film. “He said, ‘I don’t see that you’re deploying it very well,’” says Jarecki. “Now I know that you have to deploy a film. The job starts once the film is finished.”

To that end, Jarecki is planning numerous tactical uses of The House I Live In, from the creation of short-form, web-based clips designed to reach diverse audiences, to collaborations with numerous grassroots organizations aligned with his cause. “Something so wedded to the status quo and so woven into the fabric of the system,” insists Jarecki, “It’s going to take massive public action to actualize, untangle and liberate it from the corrupt forces that have come to dominate [our society].”

If Jarecki and these like-minded documentarians have any in the matter, their films will serve as a spark that ignites widespread public outcry. For filmmakers working to redress social inequality, to question disparities in wealth, and to examine the core tenets of the American Dream, public protest and action are essential. Is 2012 the year for Americans to wake up? According to Time magazine, 2011 was a step in the right direction – the magazine recently made The Protester its Person of the Year. If these filmmakers have any say, 2012 could build on protest to see greater public participation and agency in reforming the country into a place in which we all can thrive.

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