Detroit Wild City

A portrait of once-great Motor City abandoned whole by the American Dream, this handsomely shot docu from French filmmaker Florent Tillon is intriguing but unsatisfying.

Detroit Wild City” posits a post-apocalyptic future in which the remaining inhabitants of a once-booming metropolis revert to the bartering, farming and self-sufficiency of agrarian times. Too bad the film is ostensibly nonfiction. A portrait of once-great Motor City abandoned whole by the American Dream, this handsomely shot docu from French filmmaker Florent Tillon is intriguing but unsatisfying, as its generally rosy view of an “urban pioneer” movement born of desperate necessity avoids Detroit’s crippling problems to an extent that ultimately feels trite. Pic’s lyrical tone and exotic take on U.S. urban decay might play best for European artcasters.

An old “Time Marches On” reel compares Detroit’s automotive heyday to mankind’s greatest advances; as seen here, however, the city is now a curious children’s playground of fascinating abandoned structures, from a grand train station with smashed windows on every story to the trashed Easttown Theater and a Tiger Stadium under the wrecking ball.

The camera stalks eerily through once-dynamic interior and exterior landscapes, where a lone, limping homeless man pushing a shopping cart provides one street with rare traffic and some lingering folk now inhabit vast warehouse spaces for no money. Early reels present Detroit as a sort of vast modern archaeological site whose beauty lies in its desolated pathos.

There’s brief mention of the factors that contributed to the city’s decline, including the late 1970s construction of the Renaissance Center, a glittering golden behemoth that was intended to revive the city’s fortunes but instead simply sucked further life from an already beleaguered, white-flighty downtown. A group of so-called Blight Busters take it upon themselves to destroy abandoned buildings that have become crackhouses or otherwise fallen prey to crime.

But the film’s focus eventually shifts toward nature. Weeds, insects and birds (nesting in ruined skyscrapers) are in the ascendant; ownerless dogs run free. Human subjects have turned back to the land, raising livestock, herbs, vegetables and flowers in erstwhile parking lots or other neglected spaces, exchanging services for goods, and otherwise shifting off the money grid, where cash and conventional employment are increasingly remote opportunities. In one memorable shot, a pheasant casually dainties past a man on a front porch, its natural habitat entirely reconfigured.

All this is interesting enough, but Tillon’s rather idyllic depiction of this reclaimed urban wilderness glosses over the larger factors related to politics, race, crime, the drug trade and business that have brought Detroit to its knees. Without that context, this artful docu ends up seeming scattershot and borderline irresponsible, revealing only what’s convenient to its bucolic thesis.

Detroit Wild City


  • Production: An Ego Prod. presentation. (International sales: Festival Agency, London.) Produced by Pierre-Emmanuel Fleurantin, Bernard Bouthier. Directed by Florent Tillon.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Tillon; editors, Tillon, Claire Atherton; music, Winter Family, William Basinski; sound, Helene Magne; assistant director, Jacob. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, May 1, 2011. Running time: 80 MIN.
  • With: With: Billy West, Geoffrey George, Reesa, Ross, Black Monk, Harry Ward, Jeanette Pierce, Scott Farrow, John George, Shirley Robinson, Kofi, Larry Mango, George Higgins. (English dialogue)
  • Music By: