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From: Witness

Barbershop Detroit: Life in ‘Motown’ after Bankruptcy

Robert and Larry keep the spirit of ‘Motown’ alive in their barbershop despite the city’s decline.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.

Detroit, the city where General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were once the major employers, was declared bankrupt in 2013 after decades of decline. Over one million citizens left the city, and “Motown” soon became “ghost town”.

Yet, against the backdrop of urban decay, a few diehards stubbornly keep their businesses running. One of them is the barber, Robert (73), who used to be the hairstylist to many Motown artists.

In his barber shop, the old spirit is still alive. Soul music blares from his jukebox and his customers, mostly over 70 years old, swear by the glam Chuck Berry hairdo.

Barber Shop Detroit tells a story of nostalgia and pride against a background of economic recession and reveals how the past can help people get through the present.

As one customer explains: “If you take care of your hair, your hair will take care of you.”

Customers of Roberto's barber shop in Detroit [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Customers of Roberto’s barber shop in Detroit [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

FILMMAKER Q&A: Luc Vrydaghs

Al Jazeera: Why did you film a barbershop in Detroit?

Luc Vrydaghs: I like to have a place, a location. Ten or 14 years ago already, I made a series called Gas Station. A gas station is a place where people come to hang around and get away. A barbershop is even more so a place where people come to escape for a few hours. The barber knows everything that happens in the area and everybody comes and sits in the chair, so it’s a very interesting meeting point of people.

Detroit is one movie out of a series – I made six movies [about barbershops]. I chose Detroit because I wanted to shoot something in the US, and I think Detroit is a very interesting place at the moment. Detroit is a very good example of the state America is in, because there is a lot of poverty. The real side of the US is a very poor country. Detroit was the first city that went bankrupt in America.

Al Jazeera: How did you come across Robert, the main character?

Vrydaghs: A photographer had already done some research when, before shooting, I went to Detroit and drove for five days around all kinds of areas. We visited 30 or 40 barbershops. It was clear that it had to be Roberto’s, because it’s a place that had so much history. They’re old, so they’ve lived through different generations and times, like the Motown [era]. That’s where I found the idea of telling a story through the older generation and the younger generation, which was a focus point in the movie for me.

Al Jazeera: How do you think the struggles of young and old Detroiters are different?

Vrydaghs: Their struggles are completely different. The youth are not thinking about the same things. I mean, the older guys all had a rough life. They were on the barricades and fighting for their rights. These guys are now all grandfathers, and are all for the values of the family and the good life, because they’re older now. But in the past, a lot of them were pimps, they were junkies, they were leading a heavy life. They had a rough life like the youngsters nowadays. What I found very interesting was the older generation complaining about the youngsters with their trousers and they do drugs and this and that, but they did the same when they were young.

Al Jazeera: What are some of the problems that the young generation of Detroiters face?

Vrydaghs: It’s very hard for young black people to find work. A white guy can always find a job, even if he has to travel 20 miles a day. [Unemployed youth] don’t have anything to do. They hang around, it’s a struggle. The things they do – violence and drugs – are out of boredom. Another one of the big things, which you can feel in the movie, is the police brutality and racism against the guys.

Al Jazeera: The area you filmed, zip code 48205, is noted to be one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America …

Vrydaghs: I’m travelling through America right now, and any outskirt of a big city, like St. Louis or Memphis, is dangerous. Americans like to list things up and put something on top; the most dangerous, the most beautiful, the richest, the most this, the most that. I don’t have too much to say about ‘it’s the most dangerous’, you can find areas like that all throughout America. Every majority-black outskirt of a big city in America is dangerous.

Al Jazeera: Was security of the neighbourhood ever an issue during the filming?  

Vrydaghs: Though I have to say it was a dangerous area, until now I have been very blessed in having a good sense of things coming. I was in places where a woman would come out of the door and ask me what I was doing, I would say I’m filming a documentary, and she tells me that I just missed a shooting two hours ago. Drive-by shootings happen all the time there. But I didn’t feel too unsafe. I wasn’t hanging around after dark in those streets. We were friends with the older guys in the barbershop, and these guys know all of the area and are respected. So I felt safe, our safe haven in that area was the barbershop.

Al Jazeera: How do you think institutional racism has changed over the years?

Vrydaghs: On paper, black people are completely equal to white people, but in daily life, I don’t think they have the same opportunities. I’ve been in the US several times in the last 20 years and I don’t see many changes.

Al Jazeera: How did Detroit stand out from other locations where you have filmed?

Vrydaghs: Generally, in America, people are very easy to film. Most of the people don’t mind you filming them, unless they are doing something illegal. But normally, the people in America are very open in what they say. Even more, sometimes you get the feeling that they are actors in your movie. They can express themselves so well, and in a way, they speak in quotes like you see in the movies. For me, when I was editing the Detroit film it felt real, with some kind of fictional element to it, due to the type of people in America. So that’s why for me it stands out.

Al Jazeera: Are you in touch with any of the characters from Roberto’s?

Vrydaghs: I’m still in contact with my researcher there, but not the guys from the barbershop. He wrote to me a few months ago, telling me that four people have died since we filmed two years ago. That was the last thing I heard.

Al Jazeera: What are you working on at the moment?

Vrydaghs: I’m making a new series now in America called On the Road. I’m getting an old car from Miami to Seattle and stopping on the way to film. I have portraits of people along the way, from homeless people, to very rich people in Palm Beach, all kinds of people to try to make a portrait of America today.