Film Reviews

Flint: The Poisoning of an American City – Review

Having got a limited release in its native United States last autumn, Flint: The Poisoning of an America City, from documentarian David Barnhart – creator of equally politically charged documentaries on guns and immigration in North America – makes it appearance on digital release.  In a mere 85 minute running time, the film looks to explain how Flint, a city of roughly 100,000 people in Michigan, came to be at the centre of a perfect storm that, in retrospect, made its water poisoning crisis, which came to light approximately halfway through the 2010s, inevitable.  Taking a chapter-based approach, Barnhart begins by establishing context.

The first of five chapters deals with the industrialisation and growth of Flint through the 20th century.  As the car industry started to become a thing, the town grew.  General Motors, Buick and others, drew workers to this growing city, with the promise of good paying jobs and clean, decent new homes.  In the post-war period salaries grew as high as $60,000 per annum, without the need for a college degree.  The area boasted the finest schools in the country, and the car industry was a pioneer in offering women and people of colour good opportunities in the workplace; the latter benefitting from GM giving $1 million to charity to fund homes for minorities.  Modern day Flint, with its crumbling, ghost town vibe is contrasted with overlays of the designs for the homes as originally conceived and built.  Before the viewer even gets to the scandal, and a mere 10 minutes into the film, we’ve been given a feel for the town in its boom years.

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Between 10 and around 25 minutes in, the story of Flint’s decline, and the lack of corporate responsibility – enabled by lack of effective regulatory oversight – is demonstrated, as the car industry spends decades polluting the local river.  Then with strikes, rising gas prices, and competition from the Far East, GM and the wider industry drastically reduces its interests in the area, and starts to move out (something covered well in Michael Moore’s 1989 polemic Roger and Me).  This leaves the city with a crumbling tax base, as 50% of the population leave to seek alternative employment, and the local administration feels it can no longer afford to pay the cost of tapping into Detroit’s water supply.  The catastrophic decision is taken to use water from a river that has had a long history of industrial dumping and sewage spills, then to route it through a decaying, unused infrastructure, comprised of lead piping.  The piping itself is dangerous, and this is exacerbated by the corrosive chemicals that are now flowing through in the water.  The film explains that $60 million dollars would have been needed to make the river water safe, but as it was seen a temporary measure, a mere $9 million was invested.

From here the film looks at the human cost of the disaster, the culture of cover-up from the gubernatorial office, and the continued prioritisation of industry and other conurbations.  The public learns of the health risks a full year after the car industry had noticed the toll the contaminated water was taking on their equipment, and switched their supply back to the previous source.  While still paying hundreds of dollars per month for water they can’t drink or wash food or dishes in at all, the residents share their stories of the effect of lead on children and adults alike.  The film is effective in explaining the variable effects of the substance getting into people’s bodies and brains, and distinguishes between the impact on the bodies of children, adults and the elderly.  This section of the film counts the human cost, while we see the Governor’s office name Flint’s water as only its 36th highest priority for 2015.

Where the film is in danger of making unsubstantiated claims of racism – implied in imagery – it goes on to cite international gubernatorial inquiries that found exactly this.  The film can feel one sided, but it seeks always to cover itself with supportable fact.  Profit is still, seemingly, the priority, with debts for unpaid water bills being put against people’s homes – and the lead pipes still not having been replaced, despite grants being available to do so.  Flint, Michigan, to this day, does not have safe drinking water.

Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is a little slight, but it’s told efficiently and in a manner that is non-sensationalist: impressive, given the racial and socio-economic mix of the city in question.  If it is arguing this would not have happened in an affluent district, then it has earned the right to do so, by giving the contextual history as to how the city got this poor and easy to ignore.  It does, for example, draw comparison to the nearby city of Lansing, and how they were able to take the necessary preventative action for their own water infrastructure.

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The film falls away just a little in the final 15 minutes or so: losing momentum, though still able to point out to viewers that the great lakes – mostly in the same US State – are the biggest body of fresh water in the world.  Although a cruel irony, this hits home as the film sounds a cautionary note against unchecked globalisation.  Nestle, we learn, are paying a mere $200 per year for the permit to raid Michigan lakes.  The lesson from this film is that Flint may not be the last to have something like this happen.  With global interests being prioritised, and declining, poorer cities left with crumbling infrastructures, not fit for purpose, this will remain a risk.

The fixes – given in the fifth and final chapter – are somewhat woolly: vague discussion of community action, leading onto how cell phones and drones can help to assure water quality; which then leads to the slightly mixed message that action must be taken immediately… but that tech is already starting to fix the problem.  Whatever the case, this is a strong, if workmanlike documentary that prioritises keeping the story simple, straightforward, and giving context where necessary.  The film’s clear political views are worn lightly for the most part, and as such it can be recommended to anyone with an interest in how industry and the ruling classes can fail a powerless public.

Flint is out now on Digital release from Upstream Flix.

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