Detroit Je T’aime: Can Two Frenchies Transform Detroit?

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One year ago, French filmmakers Nora Mandray and Hélène Bienvenu moved to Detroit and promptly fell in love with the place. The self-declared ‘two Frenchies’ started Detroit Je T’aime – a transmedia project which includes a blog and, hopefully in the near future, an interactive documentary film and app.

Intrigued by their belief that ‘Detroit can be a model for other cities to follow’, I jumped at the chance to put some questions to Nora, discussing the former motor city and the Kickstarter project Nora and Hélène hope can transform Detroit.

This Big City: How did ‘two Frenchies’ end up in Detroit?

Nora Mandray: Detroit used to be a French city! It was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac – the man who’d give his name to the famous Cadillac car, many years later! So it made sense for us to go visit ‘Détroit’. But that wasn’t the only reason. Back in 2009, we were fascinated by urban farming and we wanted to make a documentary about it. For us, urban farming was one of those rare things for people to come together and literally, plant the seeds of a new, sustainable future. While we were doing research on the phenomenon, we found out that Detroit was clearly at the avant-garde of the movement. As we read more and more about it, our curiosity kept on growing for what was happening in Detroit. In Spring ’11, we got a development grant from the French Film Institute, in order for us to perform field research and write our documentary. We arrived in Detroit in August 2011.

TBC: What did you see in Detroit that inspired you to stay and attempt to improve the city?

NM: As soon as you arrive in Detroit, you’re greeted by the people here. “How are you doing?” they say. Then when they hear your accent, Detroiters want to know more about you. We felt welcome. During our first months, we volunteered on several urban farms. We attended many workshops and met tons of people. It was like a real “crash course” in all-things Detroit! Our goal wasn’t exactly to improve the city, but to understand what was happening here, get a feel for the Detroit spirit. So we took a rather “grassroots approach” and we were lucky to meet many inspiring, amazing people. Really, each and every Detroiter we met blew our mind! It was so different from anything we’d ever experienced before (and we’ve literally lived around the world!) From D-Town farm – an urban farming initiative dedicated to the Black community – to the GMOB – the Grown Men On Bikes, one of the best and craziest bike clubs we’ve ever seen – we saw Detroiters who were building community around new, sustainable, and often very revolutionary ideas.

So, soon, we realized that urban farming was not the only story we wanted to tell. We decided to stay a full year in Detroit because we felt that was the only way for us, as foreigners and journalists/filmmakers, to produce a faithful report on Detroit with a fresh perspective, while contributing to that unique wind of change. Starting our blog Detroit Je T’aime was a way to show that we were there to give a voice to people, and actually engage in the community, versus opportunistic storytelling.

TBC: What is an interactive documentary, and why is it the right platform for regenerating Detroit?

NM: An interactive documentary is a new form of storytelling. It mixes film with social media and video games. Unlike traditional documentaries, Detroit je t’aime will allow the audience to make their own story as they watch the film. Most importantly, it will be broadcasted online, which means it will be available at any time, anywhere, thanks to the Internet! The main idea is not to regenerate Detroit. Of course it’d be wonderful if it did. But we believe that Detroit is already getting regenerated by its own community.

At our level, we’re humbled to say that our blog has helped change some people’s minds about the city. But we’re only voicing what’s happening. The idea behind Detroit je t’aime is to share our love of Detroit with people from all over. More than anything, we want to show that Detroit can be a model for other cities to follow. And for us, an interactive documentary is the best kind of platform to inspire audience to build community through DIY projects.

TBC: If your kickstarter campaign is successful, how do you hope the end result will change Detroit?

NM: We’re French but together we’ve traveled to and lived in many cities around the world. We’ve been amazed to see that friends who lived in cities as far as Berlin, Warsaw, Dubai or Bangkok would care so much about Detroit’s stories! In a couple of months, our blog itself gathered a community of over 2,000 followers. We hope that our documentary will inspire people to connect more together, both through the Internet but also in real life! DIY culture is essential in getting back to a more authentic, sustainable lifestyle. As a platform where people will be able to comment and share stories between each other, detroitjetaime.com‘s goal is to serve as a bridge between Detroit and Europe. In France, people talk a lot about the ‘collaborative economy’ and ‘sustainability’, which is going in the same direction as Detroit. So both Detroiters and Parisians could inspire each other by sharing tips through our interactive film. Detroit je t’aime offers a quick, interactive platform to travel back and forth between continents.