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July 26, 2012 – Good news! ” ‘Detroit je t’aime:’ French filmmakers discovering Detroit’s jewels”

July 26, 2012

Featured in the today!

Since spring 2011, Nora Mandray and Hélène Bienvenu , two French filmmakers, have been working on “Detroit Je t’aime,” an interactive documentary about the city once known as “the Paris of the Midwest.” This is their story, as told by Mandray.

Bonjour, Detroit: Falling in love with a 300-year old city

I’m a French filmmaker and journalist. In 2009, I came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship to do an MFA at UCLA film school, in Los Angeles. I discovered Detroit for the first time thanks to my boyfriend (and now fiancé), also a filmmaker, who’s originally from Okemos.

We came to spend New Year’s Eve in Detroit, to visit his best friend from college, who was then doing his Ph.D. at Wayne State. Little did I know that I’d become his neighbor in Woodbridge two years later.

What I saw during my short stay back then stuck with me. I swore I’d come back to make a film in the city.

I wasn’t aware of all the documentary hype that existed around Detroit at that time. Detroit is a very cinematic city, which explains why so many fiction and nonfiction films have been shot here, also driven by the film incentives that Michigan had been providing in recent years.

Detroit’s ruins are beautiful old buildings and the vacant lots each contain a story of their own. As cliché as it might sound, you just can’t help but reflect on the past when you pass by the Michigan Central Station.

Detroit’s ruins have also made me wonder what my role in the present can be.

Shortly after my first stay in Detroit, I started reading about the city’s history while I was enrolled in a documentary class at UCLA. The more I’d discovered, the more I got fascinated. When I found out that Detroit had been founded by a Frenchman, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701, that was it!

I was inspired to make “Detroit je t’aime” (“Detroit, I love you”), an interactive documentary about the city.

In spring 2011, right before graduating from UCLA, I was awarded a new media development grant from the French Film Institute. This allowed me to move to Detroit to do field research and write the film’s screenplay together with my co-producer Helene Bienvenu — also a French journalist.

Reimagining Detroit: Far from a blank canvas

Only weeks after I arrived, I was very lucky to meet with several Detroiters from all walks of life. I set all the books and articles I had read about the city aside. I focused on meeting people and actually “feeling” the city.

Detroiters took the time to explain their own views of the city to me. But first, my soon-to-be-buddies were always eager to find out themselves what in the world a Frenchwoman would come to Detroit for.

Soon enough, I was told personal stories, as Detroiters shared with me the challenges they faced and their hopes for the future. I’d just sit and listen for hours and hours.

Meeting with people such as the legendary Grace Lee Boggs (97-year-old activist and philosopher), Malik Yakini (from D-Town, the largest urban farm in Detroit) and Olayami Dabls (from MBAD’s African Bead Museum), among many others, was definitely life-changing. Thanks to this Detroit crash course, I quickly stopped calling Detroit a “blank canvas.”

I realized how instrumental the activist community was and I also learned about African-American history and culture, which I had never been exposed to before.

This grass-roots approach definitely transformed my work. I felt an urge to pay tribute to the amazing efforts of the Detroiters I met and was told about, those who had worked continuously through the roughest times to keep their community together through the simple power of “reimagination” — those whom I had never heard of in the articles and books I read prior to coming to Detroit. As I decided to stay on for a full year in order to work on my project, I became part of the Detroit community.

I spent the first two weeks of my stay in New Center. That neighborhood looks like most of Detroit: There are several abandoned houses, some streetlights are broken, and there is little access to fresh food. There’s also a very strong sense of community. It was very important for me to have that first exposure, because that made me aware of how different downtown, Midtown and Corktown are, in comparison. Racially, too.

There’s a clear line that’s drawn in the city. It’s rare to see different communities coming together in Detroit. That still surprises me to this very day. It feels like remnants of segregation. On the other hand, urban farms, such as Feedom Freedom, D-Town and Earthworks, as well as the Fender Bender bike shop or the Recycle Here recycling center, are counted among the rare places where I’ve actually seen people really come together. Through this do-it-yourself attitude, I think that Detroiters have found a unique way to build strong and sustainable communities.

This is truly what other cities can learn from Detroit.

‘Detroit je t’aime’: Talking to Detroiters, not at them

The wisdom Detroiters have shared with me has inspired me to develop my documentary as an “open-source” project. “Detroit je t’aime” is going to be an interactive documentary. This means that it will exist on the Internet, free for everybody to see, as long as you have a connection on a computer or a smartphone. While watching the story, you’ll be able to “dig in” to specific themes. I’ve imagined creating a “DIY toolbox” that will pop up during the film — it will include guidelines and tools for the audience to start DIY initiatives, similar to those that will be in the film itself.

This form of nonlinear storytelling is a new way to take advantage of the power of the Internet. The audience will be able to share quotes and DIY projects with their friends through social networks.

Ultimately, my wish is that “Detroit je t’aime” will bridge Detroit and Europe by calling for people from both sides to submit personal stories and share ideas.

About the filmmakers

Nora Mandray (director/producer) and Hélène Bienvenu (co-producer), collaborators on “Detroit je t’aime,” met while in school at the Institute of Political Science in Paris. Mandray is a Fulbright scholar and holds an MFA from UCLA film school. Thisyear, she was selected at the Berlin Film Festival as an “emerging talent.” Bienvenu is based in Hungaryand works as a foreign correspondent for the daily French newspaper La Croix. Together they’vebeen writing about Detroit for French magazines such as Glamour, Usbek & Ricaand Les Inrockuptibles.
They’re currently raising funds online to finish their film. Their campaign until this Monday, July 30th. You can see it at:

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