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Nora Mandray is a French journalist and filmmaker who found her way to Detroit, a historically French city that sings to artists. Her latest project is "Detroit je t'aime," an interactive documentary with Hélène Bienvenu on the city's DIY culture. It will be broadcast online, where the viewer moves through screens of unique videos. Each screen has a "DIY toolbox" in the corner, which adapts to the stories told in the film. In true spirit, Bienvenu and Mandray, are DIY-ing film: it's on Kickstarter right now, and is absolutely worth your push toward its $25,000 goal.
If you're looking to be persuaded, consider where Mandray is coming from. She speaks French, English, Polish, and German. She has an MFA from the University of California-Los Angeles film school, which she attended as a Fulbright scholar, and she also has a master's degree from the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris. Nora was invited to participate in the Berlinale Talent Campus 2012 and to attend the Documentary Voices Festival in Dubai in 2010. This is her third year in the United States. These days, she's working out of the Green Garage.
I met Nora about a year ago in Avalon International Breads to talk about Detroit, writ-large. I was charmed by her and Bienvenu, but I'll be honest: I chalked them up to just another pair of young artists coming to Detroit on a whim. But I'm chastened. They've made a real commitment in moving here, and have been active presences all over the city. Nora in particular seems to know everybody.
As the director of "Detroit je t'aime," Nora is a collector of stories. She's already curating some of them on the project's website, but much more are to come. In this interview, Nora and I discuss how her initial plans for making a Detroit film went haywire, the "urban utopia" controversy, what France has to learn from Detroit, and why communication is a human right.
You have been in Detroit for about a year now to work on this project. Creatively, what has surprised you? What hasn't gone according to plan?
When I arrived in Detroit in August 2011, I had one goal in mind: make a documentary about urban farming in Detroit. Yet soon enough, I realized that many films were being made on that same subject — but not only. I realized that Detroiters were very wary of documentary filmmakers.
I had never encountered such a strong reaction from people I’d had filmed before. There was clearly a sense of being exploited on Detroiters’ part. An urban farmer even told me that with all these film crews coming through, he felt like people were looking at him, his people and his farm, as if through a scientific microscope.
Together with my co-producer Hélène, we were lucky to meet with a large number of Detroiters during our first month in the city. These discussions literally enlightened us. Let’s be honest, we arrived naming Detroit a “blank canvas” because we had read this in some news articles — and we thought it was true!
After a couple of meetings we realized that was the worst statement you could make about the city. Spending time with Detroiters from all walks of life allowed us to get a sense of Detroit’s rich history and culture.
Bit by bit, we realized that telling Detroit’s story meant committing to the city as much as to the people, and ultimately, committing to impact social change. Detroit was the first time I understood that communication is a human right. It was a very organic process: after a couple of weeks in Detroit we just wanted to do justice to the wonderful people we met.
We thought we’d be able to shoot at least 50% of our documentary in those first few months. It ended up becoming a year-long project. I decided to stay in Detroit for a full year for two reasons: one, I wanted to dive fully in the city’s life myself and become a part of the community, and two, I fell in love with Detroit — I didn’t want to leave.
How do you choose the stories you want to tell about "urban utopias," and how does Detroit fit into it?
Naming Detroit a utopia is very controversial. The term was invented by Thomas More and it pretty much means no place, or “nowhere." Now if you look at the history of the United States, there was a series of self-proclaimed utopian movements, especially in the mid-19th century, initiated by the immigrants who were arriving in that “New World.” Then again in the '60s, a movement of intentional communities rose among Americans, where people would get together in hopes of building a harmonious society. Today there’s clearly a “back to the land” trend, but it goes hand in hand with a quest for authenticity, and I believe it’s challenging the values that the industrial era has built over the last century.
Detroit at large isn’t a utopia but it has “pockets” of utopia. Those urban farms, where people build community, come together notwithstanding class, race or gender, are urban utopias. For us, utopias are more the reflection of a desire for positive change, rather than a chimera.
Both you and Hélène are drawn to the intricacies of language. How does this connect to "Detroit je t’aime"? How does it impact, on a linguistic level, how you tell the stories that will come through in your documentary?
We decided to name "Detroit je t’aime" as a nod to the city’s French history. There had also been those films “Paris, je t’aime” and “New York I love you,” and we thought that would be a funny and unexpected title for our documentary. I went to UCLA film school and it’s my third year in the US. At this point, I’m seriously starting to become americanized but I hope there’ll still be a French touch to the documentary!
The film will be broadcasted online and you’ll have the option to watch it with French subtitles. The idea is to make detroitjetaime.com a bridge between Detroit and France, and beyond. Since Hélène and I have lived in so many foreign places, we do think easily in terms of cultural exchange — and we believe that both sides (the US and Europe) have a lot to learn from each other in building a sustainable future.
"To make detroitjetaime.com a bridge between Detroit and France, and beyond." What do you think Detroit has to learn from French cities, and vice versa?
I clearly see Detroit as a model for other cities to follow. Of course I'm not talking about the city government here, but about the people.
In France, there's a lot of taboos about racism and as a result we never address it like that. I find this very inspiring.
On another level, I'd say that what Detroit would have to learn from France regards politics but also habits. Public transportation, bike paths, health care, more support for the arts, even just the idea that "walking" in a city is a normal and healthy thing to do… all of these "typically European" stuff would bring a lot to Detroit.
In French we have that expression: "it's the Spanish inn," which means you find what you bring (I don't know where this expression comes from, but anyway!), another way of saying 'you get what you give,' I guess… I always come with an open-mind wherever I go, and I gotta admit I always get especially attracted by "minorities" and how their culture thrive wherever they exist as communities — maybe because I'm one myself, as a total "ex-pat." Together with my colleague Hélène, we made a short doc on a French community living in Poland since the end of the Second World War. Then, when I moved to L.A., I made a short film on female bikers' subculture. In Detroit I was completely fascinated by the African American culture, which I had never been exposed to on that level. African Americans are a "minority" on the scale of the United States, but a majority in Detroit itself. Cities which allow different cultures to coexist is really what I value most, wherever I go.
Documentary photography is a big thing for me. A single picture can tell such a big story… I'm a fan of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Raymond Depardon, … I go through photography blogs as often as I can to get to know new photographers. I'll feel as an accomplished filmmaker the day I make a moving and thought-provoking documentary without using any dialogue nor commentary, just ambient sounds and music.
All images courtesy of Nora Mandray and "Detroit je t'aime."