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Not just another movie about Detroit: Free Press Film Fest kicks off an experiment

I like movies. You like movies.

So let’s get together, watch some new documentaries about Detroit, and then talk with the people who actually have the power to fix some of the stuff that’s wrong in this city.

That’s the idea behind the first-ever Detroit Free Press Film Fest, which kicked off last week with a line stretched for blocks around the Fillmore Theater.

The first film: Packard: The Last Shift.  Check out the trailer below: 

A film fest, and an experiment

The movie is by Brian Kaufman, part of the newspaper's Emmy-award-winning film team.

Like a lot of papers, The Free Press is trying to figure out how to still be around in five, 10, 20 years. 

So this documentary film fest is kind of an experiment: Can you get people organized and engaged about Detroit’s economic issue using movies?

Especially if those movies are by local filmmakers, putting a personal face on something as mammoth and industrial as the crumbling Packard Automotive Plant – from the firefighters who have to go charging into this death trap, to the scrappers who see it as an "honest" way to make a living, to the homeless people who live inside. 

But the real experiment doesn’t start until the film ends, and the talking begins.

"Still doing our homework:" Panel gives answers, but not specifics

The festival panels are about getting at actual solutions.

It’s the first time the new Packard plant owner, Peruvian developer Fernando Palazuelo, has actually answered questions directly from a Detroit crowd; questions that ranged from, "what’s your plan?" to, "are you seriously going to live in the Packard plant?" to, "is there some website where I can apply to work for you?"

The answer to most of those questions: no, not yet.

"We're still doing our homework," Palazuelo said. 

"It's a start. And that's worth something, you know?" 

For Brian Kaufman, the filmmaker, this kind of festival is better than just watching another movie about Detroit at home or online by yourself. 

“I think film is a great discussion tool. That’s our goal," said Kaufman. "To do these projects that have meaning for Detroit and Michigan and for the community. And getting people to see it, not just have it die a slow death online, but showing great work to people who would otherwise have no idea that it exists.”

But nobody’s kidding themselves. They’re not expecting to come away from a film fest with all the answers for approaching the Packard plant, much less all of Detroit. 

Still, at least it's a start, says festivalgoer Amber Linoski of Royal Oak.

“And also the reality that this isn’t in a couple of years. This is way down the road.”

Linoski came to the festival caring only so much about the Packard plant, she says.

But after seeing the movie, she feels differently.

“And that’s worth something, you know? And it gives that seed of hope that’s so needed.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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