Water is one of our most valuable resources, something that’s most apparent than when it’s compromised in cases like the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan. The crisis has been ongoing and unresolved for some time, and it’s worthy of attention until it is resolved, which is why David Barnhart’s documentary Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is such a vital movie. It’s a call to action, an education, and a reminder of the human faces being affected day to day. We spoke with Barnhart about putting the film together.
Documentary filmmaker David Barnhart
Approaching a Subject Without Agenda
Barnhart has made a career of social issue documentaries like Flint: The Poisoning of An American City. “We’ve done projects on immigration detention, we’ve done projects on gun violence, we did a piece on long-term recovery over 10 years after the tsunami in 2004,” he says. “Social issue documentaries are our work.” Which is why when he was told by an acquaintance ,“You have to see what’s happening in Flint,” Barnhart decided to investigate.
Traveling to Flint to talk to residents, Barnhart pursued what he considers an essential approach to the early stages of a project. “We approach it not knowing where we are going, and without an agenda,” he says. Instead, he talks and listens to the people of a community. “In order to get at the heart of whatever issue that you are trying to lift up, you really have to make those relationships,” he explains. It’s those relationships that help him achieve what he wants his documentaries to accomplish: “Our hope is ultimately to lift up voices that aren’t being heard. To humanize an issue that has been dehumanized or forgotten or ignored.” It didn’t take much time to realize the story in Flint was very much in need of that.
Structuring by the People
As interview material is collected throughout the early stages, the architecture of a project will take shape for Barnhart. Questions like, “If we develop this project what does it look like? What’s the purpose? Why are we doing this film together?” are ones Barnhart asks himself, and ones answered by the raw material as the documentary comes together. “We get all the interviews transcribed, then sit down with it, start going through it and look at the themes that emerge,” he says. “You’re reading it looking for connections and things that are repeated over and over.” Those coalescing themes then influence the structure of the film. In the case of Flint, it is divided into five chapters, and interviews are shaped into scenes within those chapters.
Take the opening chapter of the finished documentary, which introduces us to the auto industry boom years of Flint in the mid-20th century. “It goes back to listening to the community. When we went and interviewed people, they didn’t want to start with the crisis… they wanted to start with what Flint was at one time,” he says. For example, there are early scenes where a Flint resident tours the former GM factory ground that was once the lifeblood of the city. “He was just walking around and you could see he was reliving it, but there was also this sense of loss,” DB says. That led Barnhart to decide to work that period into the documentary.
“It was where the people that we talked to wanted to start and so we thought, ‘That’s where the film should start,’” he says. That period of Flint history was so significant, Barnhart decided to weave it throughout other chapters that move more chronologically through the Flint water crisis. “We felt like there were times when we had gone very deep in a chapter into the modern day, and the impact of lead in the city. We thought, ‘Okay let’s remind people as we go into the next chapter about what Flint once was again.”
The Power of Archive and Stock Footage
Documentaries often rely heavily on archive and stock footage to accommodate budget and storytelling needs, and Barnhart’s film is no exception. A 20-minute 1950s propaganda film from automaker GM called Flint: The Great Community is used to highlight the boom years of the city. But so was footage from Pond5. “The archive was a great resource for us because they had so much of that old GM factory footage… they had the industrial logging from that time period in Flint,” Barnhart says. He also found footage of a GM parade to compliment the propaganda film he found.
Pond5’s catalogue allowed them to fill out more than just historical sections of the film. In the last chapter, Barnhart wanted to allow the film to step back tonally and allow viewers to absorb what they had seen.
“We were trying to create a space that was, as you watched that last chapter, meditative and reflective,” he says. So, Barnhart turned to stock footage, like overhead drone shots of city streets or factories or the Great Lakes, to help achieve that. Finding the right material in Pond5’s archives relied on his innate knowledge of the project’s materials. “One of the things I really can remember is what people say and what I read in the transcripts. So I keep all of that in my head, and while I’m looking at the footage, I’m hearing what is said in the transcript, what I heard in the interview, and then find those images that can accomplish [what I want],” he says. “I would spend days going through it and categorizing the footage that I looked at.”
Barnhart is grateful for what Pond5 could help bring to the doc. “Without Pond5, I don’t think we would have been able to make this film – at least the way that we wanted to do it,” he says. “This is a non-profit project so we were pretty limited with what we could afford to go out and pay for and do and Pond5 was a resource that really helped us make this film.”
The result of Barnhart’s efforts is a powerful film that is bound to raise awareness around the Flint Water Crisis, especially about those who are most affected. It creates an empathetic connection between viewers and those they see on-screen struggling to live their lives without a most basic need. That speaks to what Barnhart believes to be the power of films and stories in general. “Stories are fundamental and how we connect. So we try to create space for people to connect to those stories and that narrative at a deeper level. It’s such a fundamental part of this that when you do humanize an issue, you get at that human story. It really connects with people,” he says.
All images courtesy of David Barnhart.