By Rob McLaren
“Ever since we started drinking that water, things have gotten worse,” says Jeremiah Loren, a young boy whose family are interviewed in the opening scene of You’ve Been Trumped director Anthony Baxter’s Flint, which received its world premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday.
His words – spoken through the lens of a child who, through no choice of his own, has been born into the most impoverished city in the richest nation on Earth – reveal the depressingly desperate tone which permeates throughout the whole of this two-hour documentary.
Flint is a city in crisis; a city “gripped by a spout of helplessness”, as a local pastor declares shortly afterwards. The birthplace of General Motors, Flint was once hailed as the “Vehicle City”, a slogan which still, somewhat ironically, decorates the archways above the city’s desolate, downtrodden streets. Once upon a time, the motor industry had ruled Flint, attracting thousands of middle-class – mostly white – Americans to relocate to the city, among them the parents of Michael Moore, the esteemed progressive filmmaker born in Flint, and whose frank interviewing style undoubtedly resonated with Baxter. As recently as the 1970s, around half of Flint’s population worked at GM alone. Flint, Michigan really was a bastion of the American Dream.
But then the jobs began to leave. As GM gradually left for pastures new, so did much of the city’s affluent, white population. In less than fifty years, Flint’s population more than halved; today it stands at under 100,000. Those who were able to leave have long since done so, and those who remain have no choice but to stay: their homes, once prime real estate, have been decimated in value as Flint has been continually pummelled, first by globalisation, then by the recession.
And then came the water crisis.
In 2014, Flint was going broke. In desperate need of cash, the state’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, stripped the city council of its powers and announced plans to transfer the city’s water supply from the Great Lakes to the local Flint River, at a saving of $4m.
“At first we thought it was a joke,” says one local resident. The people of Flint had long regarded the river as somewhat of a dumping site, with everything from disused shopping carts to dead bodies being recovered from its waters. Never did they think they would actually be drinking from it. But the state government was not joking. And once the taps were switched on, the problems began to flood into the homes of everyone in town.
Clearly, Baxter is not the first to document the crisis which continues to ravage Flint, one which goes beyond social and economic boundaries. But while others, such as the Netflix docuseries Flint Town, focus on the rampant crime and poverty on Flint’s streets, few have delved in such detail into the causes of such hardships.
What Baxter paints is certainly a grim picture: Flint is a city which has been spiralling into decline for decades, long since a footnote on any state government official’s agenda. The water crisis, shocking as it may be to a Scottish audience acquainted with high quality drinking water, is merely the tip of the iceberg. A murky, brown iceberg, that is.
Similarly, where Flint Town outlines the racial tensions between the city’s mostly white police department and its majority African American population, Baxter’s work takes a different approach. The battle in Flint is not one of blacks versus whites, but one of the good guys against the bad guys.
For the first half of the film, it’s evident who the “bad guys” are: Michigan’s Republican state government, an executive whom Flint did not vote for, amongst them the antagonist-in-chief, Governor Snyder. When the car parts at Flint’s GM factory begin to corrode when exposed to the river water, the Governor allows the plant to switch back to the old, safer water supply. He grants no such mercy to Flint’s people.
Snyder himself seldom crops up in the film but for archive news footage, although his appearance at a press conference where Baxter asks, “have you been to one Flint home yet, Governor?” is somewhat of a highlight. Disappointingly, though not at all a surprise, Baxter’s attempts to snag a face-to-face interview with Snyder bore no fruit.
Yet, the problems Flint citizens face cut across political divides. When President Obama’s motorcade rolls into town, the residents finally feel some hope again. When Obama wets his lips with the toxic water, in an obvious PR stunt, those hopes are dashed once again. “It felt like a stone dropped in my stomach,” says one resident afterwards.
The blurring of good and bad continues as we are introduced to Professor Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech water expert who delivers test kits to thousands of Flint homes and concedes the water is dangerously contaminated with lead and other toxins. Finally, we think we have our hero.
But when Edwards begins to work with the state government and eventually declares the water is getting better, the Flint activists turn on him. In steps Scott Smith, an inventor who swoops in to save the day with his latest patent, bizarrely enough funded by Hollywood superstar Mark Ruffalo. When Smith tells the people of Flint they’ve been lied to once again, they believe him.
So did I. And so did Baxter, as he revealed in his post-screening Q&A. By this stage of the film, we’ve been led on such a journey of heartbreak and hardship, that the sight of a sponge salesman with no scientific degree testing water samples in a hotel conference suite seems perfectly normal. Baxter’s pursuit of the truth is so uncompromising that we are left unsure of who to believe – a blunt analysis of daily life in Flint.
In exploring the narrowing chasm between facts and falsehoods, Baxter perfectly captures the sentiment of post-truth, Trumpian America. “I was right, and I was wrong,” declares an irate Smith, having been publicly discredited by Edwards. Even still, many of the residents being followed continue to put faith in his alternative facts, so desperate is their situation.
With so many themes being explored, at times Baxter becomes a victim of his own journalistic style: such is his desire to jump endlessly from home to home in search of a story that Flint can feel confused, with the transitions between pivotal scenes being patched up by overused drone shots of the city and panoramic views of the water tower.
That wouldn’t be an issue if Flint was backed by a solid voiceover, but Alec Baldwin’s narration often leaves a lot to be desired. Baldwin’s allure is obvious and may assist in the film’s distribution in US markets, but his sporadic interjections add little we don’t already know, and his visit to Flint at the end of the documentary seems somewhat hypocritical given we’ve just been shown the dangers of Hollywood celebrities interfering in issues affecting poor communities, thanks to the cameo appearance of Mr Ruffalo.
Indeed, one cannot help but wonder why Baxter himself is not the film’s narrator, given that Baxter frequently appears on camera and seems to have carried out most other roles himself during the five years of filming. At times it appears Baxter is unable to make his mind up on whether he even wants to be in his own film. He should be. He’s a terrific filmmaker and his interviewing style has clearly been welcomed by the people of Flint.
Minor issues aside, Flint is a poignant insight into a failed city, one where its people have long since given up any semblance of hope and trust in truth. Its water crisis is well-known, having been covered by major news networks across the globe, but while the mainstream media machine has long since moved along, Baxter stuck around. What he uncovers is a population being left to rust like the car parts in the Flint River.
It may have its flaws, but Flint is testament to the outstanding work of Baxter and his production company, Montrose Pictures, who have remarkably delivered a Michael Moore documentary on a Scottish moors budget.
Flint is part of the Stranger Than Fiction strand at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Other films in this strand can be found here.