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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance films inspire conversation and action


Filmmakers bring important stories and issues to audiences

August 5, 2019

Producer Scott Lansing and director David Barnhart at Sabotage Film Group in Norcross, Georgia, where Barnhart’s documentaries for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Story Ministry are produced and edited. (Photo by Rich Copley)

From the door next to their studio just outside of Atlanta, filmmakers David Barnhart and Scott Lansing have been able to watch the comic book kingdom of Wakanda come to life and iconic cars of “The Fast and the Furious” in full chase.

While Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s (PDA) Story Productions is a relatively modest operation next to the studios that crank out blockbusters such as “Black Panther,” the documentary outfit is making some noise of its own with true stories designed to spark dialogue and action.

In January, Barnhart and Lansing were somewhat surprised to find themselves at the Sundance Film Festival, where their latest film, “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City,” was shown as an “in-progress preview” to a group of potential supporters and distributors.

“It actually wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded, because we basically were in a screening room for three days doing private ‘work-in-progress’ screenings … with environmental leaders and others,” Barnhart recalled. “We were really encouraged, though, because the response was so strong and, in particular, we noticed how visibly angry and deeply moved people were by the film. One of our main hopes is that this film can be a resource to move people to action.”

The film about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which more than 100,000 residents have been exposed to lead poisoning through the municipal water system, is the latest offering in a career that has used the art of storytelling to motivate people to get involved in issues such as gun violence (“Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence,” 2014), immigration detention (“Locked in a Box,” 2016), refugee resettlement (“To Breathe Free,” 2017) and the impact of natural disasters (“Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede,” 2015).

The Flint water tower is shown in “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City,” a new documentary from Story Productions, a ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Photo by David Barnhart)

“We want these films to be resources for people to engage with an issue,” Barnhart said while sitting in the studio of Lansing’s Sabotage Film Group, where the documentaries are produced and edited. “So much of the media now is demonizing and making money off fear and shock. What we do is humanize: tell the human story that’s there and try to connect people through that story.”

“They’re resources for organizing, they’re resources for people to say, ‘Hey, let’s get together. Let’s watch this. Let’s have a panel. Let’s bring in experts locally, have a screening and let the film be a point of reflection. Have a panel and talk about how people can engage.”

That’s what has happened in several communities, such as Dayton, Ohio, where screenings of Barnhart’s films led to a film forum where issues were explored.

In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the Rev. Kathryn Reid Walker of First Presbyterian Church said “Trigger” became the centerpiece of an event in response to the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“There were a lot of youth there,” Walker said. “It was a great film and a great way to get people to talk about what happened. It does a really good job showing how far-reaching the effects of gun violence are.”

Walker said the group heard about “Trigger” from some people who saw a screening in Milwaukee, and that there is now interest in using “Locked in a Box,” about U.S. immigration detention centers run by for-profit companies, for an event focused on immigration.

The films are an effective resource for attracting youth and young adults, Walker said.

“This is such a great resource,” Walker said. “I’m really proud to say it’s Presbyterian.”

This year, Barnhart and Lansing have viewers thinking about Flint and the crisis that is still very much impacting the city.

The film has already attracted the attention of some powerful environmental groups such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance and World Water Week, the world’s largest water conference in Stockholm.

The awareness Barnhart and Lansing aim to raise is that Flint is not an isolated incident, but a harbinger of crises forming around the country as water systems age and pollution seeps into drinking water.

Barnhart said the film is part of starting the conversation and “letting it go where it needs to go. Our goal is to incite conversation relevant towards looking to resolution of very complex issues.”

 Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:   Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Films

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Debbie Cassady, ILP
Molly Casteel, OGA

Let us pray:

Lord, thank you for opportunities to help others wherever they are. Let us not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to needs around us but simply do acts of kindness and compassion in your name. Amen.

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