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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance films inspire conversation and action


Filmmakers David Barnhart and Scott Lansing bring important stories and issues to audiences with their documentaries

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

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

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

The film about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., 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).

“We want these films to be resources for people to engage with an issue,” Barnhart says, 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.”

Conversation starters

“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 precisely 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, Wis., the Rev. Kathryn Reid Walker of First Presbyterian Church said “Trigger” became the centerpiece of an event in response to the Valentine’s Day 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“There were a lot of youth there,” Walker says. “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 says 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.

Click here to support the work of PDA’s Story Ministry

The films are a particularly effective resource for attracting youth and young adults, Walker says.

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

The films were a natural outgrowth of Barnhart’s work for PDA as an associate working in Mexico and then Central America around the turn of the 21st century. One of his jobs was bringing back reports from his work in the field, and that’s where his filmmaker side kicked in.

In addition to writing reports, he started taking his camera to record video interviews with people he worked with and what he was seeing in order to provide a record of the work.

“I saw how important, particularly in times of disaster, narrative is,” Barnhart says.

That led Barnhart to Chicago, where he studied story as ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary.

Mutual admiration and collaboration

When Barnhart returned to PDA, he began working on projects such as “Kepulihan,” which follows a tsunami survivor for a decade. Then in 2012, he started working with Lansing, and together they have formed a creative collaboration that both agree has been mutually beneficial.

The storyboard for “Flint” was taped above the coffee pot at Sabotage Film Group, where documentary director David Barnhart’s films are produced and edited. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“He’s the best editor I’ve seen,” Barnhart says of Lansing. “My problem is I’ve got too much on the plate, and he comes in and says, ‘Let’s bring this here and cut this here,’ and he helps me cut it down and find those threads, because I always want to include everything.”

Lansing flips that script, talking about Barnhart: “Dave will bring a lot to the table, which an editor loves, and I’ll say, ‘Great.’ We don’t start with a producer saying, ‘Bring me something cool.’ We start with a story. As an editor, that’s a gift.”

“Dave’s really good at not forcing a story. He lets the story run its course. He lets the story define itself without forcing it into the narrative people push for.”

And that is a major way Barnhart’s filmmaking aligns with the PDA ethos of working with people impacted by tragedy and asking them what they need and how the church can help them navigate through crisis.

“We don’t start with an agenda, so we don’t know where it’s going,” Barnhart says of his and Lansing’s process.

“If you’re going with an agenda, then you’re dictating what you’re looking for. … We always start with, ‘What do you want to talk about? Where do you want to start?’ We have a conversation.”

Within that process, Barnhart and Lansing say that they all share in the conversation and often come to new understandings of the issues and situations. Those lead to stories, which he finds more powerful than statements.

“Story is a fundamental part of our day-to-day lives and enables people to make their own connections and insights. We share these stories and hope to engage the audience in this dialogue,” Barnhart says.

Focus on Flint

As 2019 unfolds, Barnhart and Lansing have viewers thinking about Flint and the crisis that is still very much impacting the former automotive powerhouse.

“The biggest problem we found with Flint was the instant response we got. Nine out of 10 times we tell people about it, they say, ‘That’s all fixed, right?’” Lansing says. “’Fixed’ is such an odd term when you’ve poisoned an entire group of people, and that poison continues to be in their systems for years.”

Pollution in the Flint River contributed to the Flint water crisis as shown in “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City” a documentary from Story Productions, a ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Photo by David Barnhart).

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.

It’s also getting rave notices from people such as Paste magazine editor Josh Jackson, who wrote that the in-progress preview of “Flint” he saw is “a fantastic doc about the history of a great American city and a great American tragedy that will enlighten and enrage you in equal measure. State government incompetence, institutional racism, criminal negligence. We’re coming up on five years without clean water in a city of 100,000 people.”

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 says the film, which should be available later this year, 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.”

This story originally appeared in “Mission Mosaic,” the annual report of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Click here to read the full report.

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