Sheffield Doc/Fest film review: Flint
Matthew Turner | On 20, Jun 2020
Director: Anthony Baxter
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Mark Ruffalo, Marc Edwards, Anthony Baxter, Scott Smith, Tammy Loren, Nakiya Wakes
Watch Flint online in the UK: Doc/Fest Selects
Sheffield Doc/Fest has gone online for 2020, with films streaming until 10th July – and others streaming alongside cinema screenings in the autumn. For more information, click here – or see our picks from the festival line-up here
Scottish filmmaker Anthony Baxter (best known for his Trump documentaries, You’ve Been Trumped and You’ve Been Trumped Too) spent five years filming in Flint, Michigan, for this documentary about the ongoing water crisis. It’s clear that there are many different aspects to the crisis, but Baxter’s film ultimately struggles to do them justice, even though it movingly captures the anger and anguish experienced by the residents.
The water crisis was triggered in 2014, when Michigan governor Rick Snyder switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, in order to save money. Almost immediately, many residents began to suffer from numerous health problems, including lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease.
Arriving in Flint in 2015, less than a year later, Baxter meets several families affected by the crisis, including the Lorens, whose 12 year old son Jeremiah has serious health issues, and a family who have to move out of their home because the water is so bad, and are then unable to sell their property as a result.
It transpires that the city authorities neglected to address corrosive elements in the heavily polluted river water, so the water ate away at the lead pipes, effectively poisoning thousands of people. Over the course of the film, Baxter repeatedly checks in with the various families, but their situation never seems to improve, even after the Flint authorities are forced to switch the water supply back to Lake Huron.
Throughout the film, various people get involved in the fight for Flint, including Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University (who helped expose the crisis in the first place) and actor Mark Ruffalo, who heads a non-profit organisation called Water Defense. Intriguingly, people who are introduced as heroes in 2015 become much more ambiguous figures by the film’s end – Edwards himself becomes an advisor to the governor (and ends up slapping a former collaborator with a $3m lawsuit), while Scott Smith (who’s taken on by Water Defense and conducts his own water tests) is exposed as a pseudo-scientist attempting to flog his own sponge-related tests and ends up having to publicly retract some of his earlier statements. He’s last seen giving Baxter an extremely tetchy interview that’s completely at odds with his earlier appearances.
The film’s biggest problem is a lack of focus and clarity. There’s an awful lot of footage of town meetings and news reports, but huge questions remain unanswered – for example, if Smith’s test results aren’t scientifically viable, why don’t the authorities conduct their own tests? Similarly, we’re told that the government allocates Flint a grant in order to replace the pipes, but there’s only enough money to replace some of them and this isn’t explored further. In addition, Baxter has a key figure effectively hint at a much deeper problem involving government neglect of poorer neighbourhoods, but that isn’t explored further either.
It’s also fair to say that Baxter allows the film to shift focus because of celebrity involvement. Late in the film, Alec Baldwin (who provides the narration) accompanies Baxter to Flint and meets some of the families and political figures involved. He asks useful questions and gives the film some star power, but you can also feel the film slipping away from Baxter as a result. (Baldwin’s narration also feels out of place and you can’t help but wonder if the film might have benefited from a more personal approach with Baxter narrating it himself.)
In the end, although the film isn’t as clear as it might have been on the detail, one thing is certain: the authorities have failed the people of Flint and there’s a shocking lack of accountability. Alongside the depiction of the social impact of the crisis, the film’s real achievement is the way it captures the dispiriting loss of trust and faith in the very institutions that are meant to protect the people and keep them safe. Sound familiar?
Flint is available to rent for £4.50 on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects, or as part of a £36 pass, until 10th July 2020.