After his screening in Montreal, French film Director, Florent Tillon traveled to Detroit with his film DETROIT WILD CITY. The film has received global attention and was recognized at the International Festival of Montreal. Tillon used his time spent in Detroit in 2008 and 2009 to capture what he viewed as the essential beauty of a real city. His memories, such as the trees that used to adorn the rooftop of the now deceased Lafayette Building and the people whom he met showed true signs of survival. Though released during a period where many other films are showcasing the “Urban Ruins”, Tillon’s approach sets his film apart from the others. When we sat down to talk about the film with Florent and his team of two (Assistant Director Francois Jacob and sound artist/recordist Helene Magne), it felt as though we were catching up on an old friendship, and the friendship was our city.
SBD: Lately Detroit has received much attention. It seems like some comparisons are being made between the Palladium Boots series, DETROIT LIVES and your body of work. What is your reaction to that?
FLORENT: It’s normal. Is the question what do I think of the other?
SBD: I suppose I am asking because I do not feel that your film should be put on the same level as the boot commercial.
FRANÇOIS: For me, [Florent’s] film would not be an advertisement.
FLORENT: Well, we did sell some t-shirts.
FRANÇOIS: DETROIT LIVES, for me, what the whole film is relying upon is to give people a little pang in the heart, reenacting all the founding myths of Detroit, but these are done in a Cadillac while driving by. Everybody is an entrepreneur in the movie. It feels to me like they are selling an idea of Detroit. The fact that they emphasize this is even more depressing.
SBD: The reason I ask is that the direction the Detroit Lives crew took is very obvious. They took a specific path that offered them what they wanted to show about the city. You obviously chose a different path, no?
FLORENT: Some characters we shot were the same, Larry, East Town Theatre…
SBD: And with Larry it was really the first mention of the repopulation of Detroit
FRANÇOIS: ‘The White kids’, laughing
FLORENT: Yes, he’s obsessed with that
SBD: But in all fairness, after 60 years of white flight all of a sudden the kids from the suburbs are coming down in hordes to certain areas. It seems like you chose to not necessarily exclude that part of it, rather to focus on the pioneering and the people who were already there and are making do with what they have. What is the reason you went that way?
FLORENT: There [are] two parts of the film that are connected, the first part is when someone is explaining what happens when the houses or the factories are abandoned: there are the plants, after that there are the insects. They are very tiny elements but when they spread, when they occupy the space, they begin to open the gate for the larger animals. The larger animals come because there are resources; they rebuild nature so the biggest animals can come and feed themselves. The other part is the pioneers and the settlers. The pioneers are leaving cities to find a new frontier, a new territory. They are interested in emptiness and the settlers are interested in something that is full, so they are total opposites. This part of nature I thought was really connected so I deliberately chose to avoid the people who have solutions, people who say, ‘Ah, Detroit is going to be that, or this…’
I preferred to end it with Larry Mongo and the Professor just to let people imagine, to use their own imaginations. There is a sentence that is very important to me, “Looking for the city is more important than finding the city” and I made the film exactly like that. Thinking about and looking for but not finding, that was more interesting to me.
SBD: In reference to the city’s reputation with crime, hate and murder, do you find that as an outsider you push through things more than people who are from here? Were you able to show the city in a different light? We want to know what you see.
FLORENT: It keeps on changing. So that is a good symbol. It is a different city than it was when I was here a year ago. Things go on very fast. I hope that the city will be colonized again, but I do not know if I will love the city as much as when it was decolonized.
FRANÇOIS: If I can, I will translate for Helene. She wants to reflect on your question about seeing the city differently… ‘Artists are beyond their geographical [borders]. Artists give themselves permission to think differently. They are looking for a form of truth, that is not necessarily the truth but it will be a form of truth’.
FRANÇOIS: Probing for your own truth makes you make choices. For example, there is a lot of fiction in the documentary. We feel there is an essence that we are trying to get at but sometimes fiction helps you get to that reality [better] than that reality itself. Being an artist, you also give yourself permission to be unfaithful.
FLORENT: And also the truth is different for people who come.
SBD: As a French Director, did you feel any sort of responsibility portraying a city that you are not from?
FLORENT: When I was finished I sent the film to someone and he said, “Oh, I thought you were making a film about nature and wild life, this is not what I expected. This is one more film about ruins and I’m not interested, sorry.” That was the first feedback. Even Geoff said that I had to be ready for the backlash.
SBD: I think that the element of survival rings very clear in your film. How would you describe it when you think of the survival of Detroit?
FLORENT: There are a lot of people who do not have a chance to go forward. They really have to survive. Their houses are collapsing and they have to fix what they have. When we talk about [the young settlers in the city], they are wealthy compared to other people. I do not know what they are going to do, maybe that’s why they are not in the film. Maybe they’ll leave, maybe they’ll find jobs with Hantz farm. That might be best. I don’t know.
SBD: It is true that there is a specific difference between the repopulation of Detroit and the survival
FRANÇOIS: As soon as the city is not their own, that creative class might so somewhere else.
SBD: A long time ago we used to be called the Paris of the Midwest. Now the creatives are culminating and coming together. Do you think that that is something that could rebuild Detroit and revive that era?
FLORENT: Yes, of course. Detroit has always been the city of the future for me. It was a laboratory and when it became very destroyed they made the film RoboCop. There is a strange destiny for Detroit to be the laboratory of the future.
SBD: You mentioned RoboCop, and I know that you wrote an article entitled “RoboCop City”, so is that what sparked your interest in the city, did RoboCop do it for you?
FLORENT: It is one of my favorite films. I think that the movie culture brought a lot of interest in the city. There was a story there that was the real story of Detroit. The political point of the film is that America is carnivorous; poverty, drugs, economy and for all of this I was attracted to the city. But after all that, it was the people here and the real story that opened the gate for me.
Please do your best to venture to the Burton Theatre and catch the last screening of DETROIT WILD CITY on October 13.