FLINT, Michigan — There is a point in “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” where we have seen and heard how the Michigan city’s water system was contaminated with lead and the many ways in which public officials caused or allowed the tragedy to happen, and it’s easy to ask, “How has nobody gone to jail for this?”
And in steps Fred Jones.
“If a criminal with a bottle of poison put it inside the water system, blue collar, he may go to jail for the rest of his life because he has committed murder,” Jones says, seated against a black background with a cap perched on his head. “But a white-collar criminal who has done the same thing or went along with poisoning the water, he gets what? A slap on the hand.”
Years after that footage was captured, Jones sits down in the lobby of a Flint area hotel to talk about the movie from director David Barnhart and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Story Productions.
“If you don’t like the truth, get away from me,” Jones says.
Getting at the truth of what happened in Flint and raising voices such as Jones’ was one of the goals of “Flint,” which will have its world premiere Thursday night in the heart of the city whose name it bears. The film starts in Flint’s heyday, when a thriving General Motors plant meant good jobs, good schools and a high standard of living for most of the city.
But GM eventually moved out, leaving a factory site that is now thousands of yards of cracking concrete overtaken by weeds and a thin layer of garbage. Structures like an old union hall stand as reminders of the city’s past glory.
In the middle of this decade, Flint became synonymous with environmental disaster as lead from aging water pipes seeped into drinking water, poisoning residents and wreaking havoc on an already beleaguered city.
How that happened is a complicated story of pollution, aging infrastructure, dereliction of duty and environmental racism that Barnhart and producer and editor Scott Lansing piece together in an 80-minute film.
“One of our struggles is helping people understand the water crisis,” says Lisa Horne, director of Community Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Flint, who also appears in the film. “You can put this film on and say, ‘Yes, that’s what happened to Flint.’”
Barnhart was first drawn to Flint by Rick Turner, national associate for disaster response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) when the crisis began to unfold in 2014. PDA responds to human-caused disasters such as mass shootings and refugee crises, in addition to natural disasters. But sending a national response team to Flint was a bit different. Turner understood the situation had potential to become more of the norm.
Whether it’s aging infrastructure in Flint, pollution in Eastern Kentucky, water rights disputes between nations or the impact of climate change, water security is a growing issue.
Barnhart had already focused on subjects such as natural disaster recovery, gun violence and immigration detention for PDA when Turner contacted him and said he should come see what the story was in Flint.
The first few times Barnhart visited the city, he didn’t bring a camera. His method is to start talking to people to find out what the story is, before gearing up.
While the movie incorporates archival footage, news footage and graphics, there was plenty going on for the Story Productions cameras to capture, such as water distribution lines where people could receive bottled water by the case, because the water in their homes wasn’t safe.
“People would come through and show me lesions on their skin,” says Harold Woodson of the Bethel United Methodist Church Help Center, one of three water distribution centers still operating.
Woodson was attending a June private screening for people who had been involved in the film at Flint’s Calvary United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Greg Timmons has experienced the water crisis in his home and his congregation. Both of his children suffered effects from lead in their water, and like many churches around Flint, Calvary is active in response to the crisis. Cases of water are stacked in a corridor just off the spacious sanctuary of the church, and the water fountain is labeled “FILTERED.”
You can’t drink the water; it’s still not potable,” Timmons says of some of the impacted parts of the city, despite some government officials’ assurances that things are OK.
During the heart of the crisis, Timmons was part of efforts to deliver water, with volunteers regularly driving routes to get bottled water to people who needed it.
“We’re a present help for people in times of trouble,” Timmons says. “We want them to know that the help comes from God.”
Timmons is seen in the film, and he has been part of the team organizing the world premiere. Like others, he wants people to see “Flint” so they can really understand what happened.
“I see his heart in how he approaches things,” Timmons says of Barnhart. “He has balanced multiple perspectives.”
Of course, it is not necessarily the story most people want their city to have. The water crisis is still evolving, and people continue to suffer consequences like Jim Dixon, who is prominently featured in the film as he struggles with multiple effects of the lead poisoning, including kidney failure.
Horne, the Presbyterian community ministry director, says that elementary school teachers she works with tell her they are just starting to see students clearly exhibiting symptoms from the effect of lead on brain development.
Driving around neighborhoods impacted, many houses are boarded up, abandoned because the cost of replacing pipes was unaffordable. Property values have plummeted.
“It looks like a disaster area,” Turner says during a drive through one of the affected neighborhoods. “You don’t think of a city in America having water you can’t drink — even put in your mouth or wash your hands with.”
That drive included a stop at the Flint River, a seemingly idyllic spot for a summer afternoon that came with a scary sign advising visitors what fish not to consume from the river —or consume in small quantities due to pollution.
“We need to get back to a place where a river isn’t something you’re afraid of,” Barnhart says, looking at the sign. “There’s a real need in this country to understand how this happened.”
In addition to telling the story of Flint, part of the point of the movie is to tell viewers the Michigan city’s story is not an isolated event. Newark, New Jersey is just the latest city to suffer a lead poisoning crisis in its water system. And in that case, officials are already pointing fingers.
News also continues to break about Flint, including the possibility of criminal charges again officials such as former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. A new PBS “Frontline” report says many more deaths may be attributable to the water crisis than have been reported.
To Jones, Barnhart had an important quality to make the Flint movie.
“This movie could not have been made by anyone residing here,” he says. “There is so much truth from so many perspectives, everyone can’t be lying.”
Brenda Finkbeiner, who is also on the steering committee, says, “This is the story of the rise of Flint, its death and rebirth.”
Horne says, “I do believe we are overcomers. There is a strength in our community, and we will overcome this, and Flint will be a better place.
“Something like this cannot happen and there not be a victory. We don’t just see a problem and pray. We take action.”
That, essentially, is the point of the film.
by Rich Copley, Presbyterian News Service