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PDA ‘Flint’ documentary premieres in city still enduring its water crisis

Film aims to tell Flint’s story, a cautionary tale for communities across the country

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service 

More than 600 people attended the world premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” at the Capitol Theatre in Flint, Michigan on Sept. 12. (Photo by Rich Copley)

FLINT, Michigan — Mere moments after the final credits of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” rolled, Harold Woodson was on stage of the Capitol Theatre Thursday giving the documentary an endorsement that affirmed it had accomplished some of its major goals. 

“I would recommend to anyone here that you get a copy of this, for your own personal records, for your own family, so 10 years from now, 15 years from now, you can show them some of the things that we’re going through currently,” said Woodson, who is still helping distribute water every week for the Bethel United Methodist Church Help Center in Flint. “We don’t want to minimize. We want to keep this message. That’s what this is tonight, sharing this message with as many people as possible.” 

The film, the latest production of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Story Ministry, is the tale of the Michigan city’s five-year-old water crisis that, as the film illustrates, was nearly a century in the making and came to fruition by a series of tragic government decisions that put lead into the drinking water of many Flint residents. 

The film, which will begin a week-long run Friday at several theaters in Michigan’s Emagine theater chain, was unveiled Thursday night in a world premiere that was free to city residents and brought out an audience of more than 600 people, including many people who were involved in the making of the film.  

Among the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) National Response Team members helping launch the film was Gail Farnham, who was part of the team originally sent to Flint as the water crisis unfolded. 

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team member Gail Farnham (right) distributed question cards and pencils to people attending the world premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City.” (Photo by Rich Copley)

“The scope of it was what struck me,” she recalled as she waited for the doors to open for the premiere. “It seemed to be so sudden, but the sort of thing that had been secret for a while. The impact on the children was very sad.” 

Farnham said Flint seemed like a great subject for Story Ministry.  

Initially, film director David Barnhart and PDA Director the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus said, the thought was to do a series of shorter films about water crises including Flint, South Sudan and other areas, knowing water security is emerging as a major global issue. 

But as Barnhart and partner Scott Lansing continued to talk to people in Flint, it became clear there was a story there that would not be served by a 10-20-minute film. That was when Barnhart suggested it become a full-length documentary, taking Story Ministry to a new level. 

“This is a ramp up,” Kraus said.  

Barnhart notes, “We’re not just screening in churches. We’re screening in universities, in theaters, in film festivals. That’s the power of story: to connect wider circles of community.”

More than 600 people attended the world premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” at the Capitol Theatre in Flint, Michigan on Thursday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The high-profile release of “Flint” is part of what has been a big summer for Story. Last month, Barnhart and Lansing’s “Trigger: the Ripple Effect of Gun Violence” was released on Amazon Prime, a huge platform for the film. 

And now “Flint” bows with a big premiere, theatrical release, subsequent screenings, and plans for streaming release in early November. That wasn’t necessarily the plan. 

“We have never gone into any of David’s films thinking, ‘What’s going to be our next great global release?’” Kraus said. “We go in to be in honorable relationship with a community whose story needs to be heard.” 

And that is an important distinction in the world of films from church denominations and organizations: It is not about the church. There is nary a mention of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in “Flint,” and the Presbyterians shown are from local congregations and in the context of the work they did to serve during the crisis.  

The intention was to tell Flint’s story, in part because it’s a story poised to unfold around the country. As was pointed out in a panel discussion after the film, Newark, New Jersey is the latest city to struggle with lead in drinking water. 

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Director the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus was interviewed by a Story Ministry video crew before the world premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” at the Capitol Theatre in Flint, Michigan on Thursday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Sometimes, after you do that deep work of listening to the community, after you brought whatever tangible resources need to be brought, you find out there is another opportunity, a rare opportunity — an opportunity to bring the voices of a community together to serve not just themselves but others,” Kraus said to the audience while introducing the film. “So, tonight we’re here to thank you, because your willingness to tell your story and allow your story to be shared publicly throughout the country we believe will be able to help many, many other communities that will be facing — even now in Newark — the collapse of infrastructure, the political challenges, and the desire to create and recreate a healthy life where people’s children can grow up knowing the water they drink is safe and is not going to harm them.

“It’s my prayer,” Kraus said, “that the work we begin here tonight will not only be of service to you but will be of service to many other communities like Flint.” 

Thursday night’s audience of Flint citizens was engaged with their story on the Capitol’s big screen. 

Producer and editor Scott Lansing was interviewed by WNEU-TV (Ch. 5) of Saginaw, Michigan before the world premiere of “Flint: Rhe Poisoning of an American City.” (Photo by Rich Copley)

A festive atmosphere preceded the screening. As attendees arrived, they were greeted by tables for several health care organizations that had been active in water crisis response, as well as information about advocacy for water issues. Barnhart and Lansing were interviewed by the local CBS affiliate, and a video crew documented the day, including interviews in the theater lobby earlier in the afternoon 

As the film rolled, the audience was engaged, cheering Members of Congress who took inept state and local officials to task for their weak response to the crisis, and laughing when former Gov. Rick Snyder said Flint did not seems to be a top-tier crisis in Michigan in 2015. 

Producer and editor Scott Lansing and director David Barnhart spoke to the audience before the premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” at the Capitol Theatre in Flint, Michigan on Sept. 12. (Photo by Rich Copley)

After an extended ovation, Barnhart, Lansing and others participated in a panel discussion that touched on subjects including the crisis’ impact on children, distrust of government, and the personal impacts of the crisis.  One audience question addressed the Trump administration’s decision Thursday to roll back clean water regulations. After a shrug of shoulders, Barnhart acknowledged the reaction was understandable, considering it is the latest in a line of assaults on environmental regulation from the current administration.   

“We can’t be that way,” Barnhart said. “We’ve got to do something.” 

Harold Woodson of the Bethel United Methodist Church Help Center in Flint , at left, was among those attending Thursday’s premiere of “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City.” (Photo by Rich Copley)

Woodson echoed a similar sentiment as panelists were asked what gives them hope.  

“We can’t be giving up on ourselves, and we can’t be giving up on our children,” he said. “We’ll survive, whatever comes our way.”

Read more 

Flint film aims to tell truth of the water crisis with residents’ voices 

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance films inspire conversation and action  

‘Flint’ film from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance set for September premiere 


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