Today, I watched this very moving documentary directed by Elise Conklin about the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan. Titled From Flint: Voices of a Poisoned City, this 2017 film really does foreground the voices of residents of Flint first and foremost. It allows them to tell the story of what happened in their own words.
The problems in Flint began when the water source was changed to the Flint River without corrosion inhibitors being applied to the water. The water system pipes were old and huge levels of lead were released into the water. Over 100,000 people were exposed, though the residents in the documentary note that it was mostly poor communities and black communities that suffered most. More than one resident asks if the problem wouldn’t have been cleared up immediately if the area had been all white and prosperous.
The difficulty for people in Flint is not necessarily understood, even while the situation is described in flat language on the news. In allowing residents to talk about their suffering and difficulties, the film definitely succeeds in showing how appalling the situation has been. We see them in their homes, at the time still without running water. We see them in testifying to committees after driving for hours to have their say. We see them angry and brought to tears.
Especially what we see is the reality of difficulties that they face. There are health problems caused by lead poisoning for adults but especially for children which is particularly heart-breaking. There are evictions by landlords who cannot guarantee the water quality. There is the slow, numbing difficulty of finding and using water, when you can’t even use the tap water to wash your face. How do you bathe an elderly relative in bottled water? How do you boil food with your meagre supply? How do you make a case last a week for you and the whole family?
The people of Flint definitely do not come across as victims however. Many of the people who speak on the documentary are those who help others by delivering water, by setting up special health programs for children, by checking on each other. The film doesn’t flinch at showing the peoples’ anger and emotion too.
But this is not a feel-good story. What individuals are doing does not make up for the cover-up, the corruption, and lack of care for the environment and the community in Flint. The film overall really spoke to me of the intertwined causes of social justice and environmental justice, because it is the poor and the marginalized who suffer the consequences of pollution the most. The Flint case actually speaks to a far greater truth.
Just last week I was talking to an environmental scientist who showed me a map in the US of where the most pollution is placed over a map of where communities of color live. The evidence was sobering. What Flint and other cases remind us is that there can be no true environmental movement without a strong anti-racist movement and campaigns for equality.