Anthony Baxter on his documentary about the Flint water crisis

FLINT is the latest film by one of the UK's leading documentary filmmakers, Anthony Baxter, who comes from Angus. Anthony's previous films include the award-winning You've Been Trumped (2011), A Dangerous Game (2014) and You've Been Trumped Too (2016).

The Flint water crisis is a public health crisis that started in 2014, after the drinking water source for the city of Flint, Michigan was changed. Filmed over five years and starting even before revelations of water toxicity came to light, FLINT captures a man-made disaster that poisoned an entire American city.

The film unfolds through the perspectives of Flint's residents, and is narrated by Alec Baldwin. Alongside Anthony, the production is produced by Emmy award-winning Producer, Sabrina Gordon, award-winning Journalist, Richard Phinney, and Scientist turned Filmmaker, Justin Weinstein.

This incredibly important film will receive its World Premiere at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday 1 March. Ahead of the first public screenings, we spoke to Anthony about the film, the messaging behind it.

When did you decide you were going to make this documentary, and what about the issue motivated you to?

"It was the summer of 2015 and I had been in Detroit, Michigan to do a special free screening of a previous film – A Dangerous Game – for the city’s residents who were being affected by mass water shut-offs for non-payment of bills in the city.

"One of the themes of that film, was water. And after the screening, residents from nearby Flint got in touch about an issue that was seriously affecting them. Ever since their water had been switched to the local river as a cost saving measure by the State of Michigan, they’d noticed huge problems after drinking it – from skin rashes, to hair falling out. I went through to Flint and discovered there were also major concerns about lead levels in the water.

"A group of local mothers were planning to do a city-wide test of the water, as the people in authority had refused to help them, and had reached out to Professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University – one of the country’s leading experts on lead in water.

"The tests, which we followed, revealed toxic waste levels of lead in the water supply. I continued to film, and the story made headlines around the world later that year, when Professor Edwards’ test results were made public.

"After the cameras left Flint, I felt it was very important to continue documenting the residents’ plight. Little did I know then though, about all the dramatic twists and turns in the story that lay ahead."

How does Flint follow on from your previous productions like You've Been Trumped and A Dangerous Game?

"Both films were very much a David vs Goliath battle and followed people who weren’t being listened to by those in power. And in Flint it’s a very similar situation. And as we saw recently from the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, residents had raised the alarm but weren’t being listened to. In that case it was the cladding and fire safety measures that caused them sleepless nights. And as we now know through the horror of what happened there – they were 100% right to be concerned.

"In Flint, residents were 100% right to raise a red flag about using the river water which had been a dumping ground for years – as their drinking water. Time after time they were assured the water was ‘safe.' It was not. And as we now know, an entire city was then poisoned."

How did the Work in Progress screenings impact the final version of the film?

"By holding work-in-progress screenings in several US cities, we were able to understand more clearly what aspects of the film were most important to audiences. It was also incredibly inspiring to discover how people there were so concerned about Flint’s residents, that this is not a story the people of America have forgotten.

"But many people haven’t had a chance to see the whole picture. Just because Flint has fallen off the national news, it doesn’t mean the problem has been fixed – as the film reveals. From those screening, we now have the finished film to unveil in Glasgow."

Understanding what aspects of the film were most important to audiences

"By holding work-in-progress screenings in several US cities, we were able to understand more clearly what aspects of the film were most important to audiences. It was also incredibly inspiring to discover how people there were so concerned about Flint’s residents, that this is not a story the people of America have forgotten. But many people haven’t had a chance to see the whole picture. Just because Flint has fallen off the national news, it doesn’t mean the problem has been fixed – as the film reveals. From those screening, we now have the finished film to unveil in Glasgow."

Anthony Baxter
Director and Producer of Flint

In your previous work, it feels like you've created an important platform for people who might otherwise not have had their voices heard. Is this something you've aimed to do with Flint?

"Very much. Our politicians, whether it’s here or in the United States, have access to the airwaves all the time. But for the residents in Flint – much like those in Grenfell Tower – no one was listening to them. Two Flint mothers, LeeAnne Walters and Melissa Mays - who both feature in the film - found that the only way they could get their message out early on, was through YouTube and Facebook, as they felt ignored by the wider media.

"It was only when Flint hit the national news headlines, that anyone listened. But as the years have ticked by, we’ve had Donald Trump move into the White House, Brexit and now Boris Johnson in Number 10. There are so many other things happening in the world, that Flint has dropped down the agenda. I very much hope this film will help put the issues raised by the Flint catastrophe – which are very much a live and extremely important – back in the public spotlight."

Are there any prominent figures who have come out in support of the production?

"Alec Baldwin is the narrator and Executive Producer of the film – and he has been extremely supportive. He has spent a lifetime battling water issues and fighting for safer water on his home turf of Long Island and in other parts of the United States, and so the subject of Flint is one he has closely followed.

"After seeing an early cut of the documentary, he was then very keen to meet at first-hand some of the residents who have been suffering in Flint for so many years now. Given that Michael Moore is, of course, a native of Flint, we were also delighted to receive an invitation take part in a work in progress screening at his Traverse City film festival, where my previous films have been screened."

What was the most important takeaway for you in making this documentary?

"Most importantly, that when trust is shattered, and a vacuum is created, it’s very important for those in authority to show leadership and not to get in a position where ordinary people are doing their job for them and left to fend for themselves. The people of Flint have been misled by the former Governor, and the very environmental agencies who were supposed to protect them. They didn’t know who to trust. So, when the State then turned around and said the science told them the water was now safe, nobody trusted the messenger. And who can blame them? But in FLINT we reveal how dangerous that situation can be. In many ways, the film is cautionary tale of what will happen if trust in the authorities continues to erode around the world."

How do you feel about FLINT screening at Glasgow Film Festival?

"I’m very honoured to be holding the World Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival – which has a reputation of being a film festival for audiences. That’s the best kind. And both Screen Scotland and BBC Scotland have supported the making of this film – even though it’s not a Scottish story.

"I think that shows the acknowledgement of funders and our broadcasters here in Scotland – there’s also a need to reach out from these shores from time to time to explore big global stories through the lens of our country’s filmmakers. I also think the story of Flint is a warning sign to communities here in Scotland. There are many towns and cities with lead pipe infrastructure – including Aberdeen, Glasgow and Dundee.

"The story of Flint shows how easy it is for lead to be disturbed and the damage it can wreak.  Ninety per cent of the people of Flint still use bottled water for bathing and showering according to one recent survey and reading scores have plunged.  So this is a problem that will take many years to fix and begin to recover from. Once lead is in your system, it is already too late - as according to doctors, it causes irreversible damage."

What are your future hopes for this film?

"We’re committed to getting the film out to an audience both here in Scotland and beyond. We have a theatrical release for FLINT planned for later this year through distributor Cosmic Cat - and plans for a US theatrical are afoot following a worldwide festival release.

"The film will screen on the BBC later this year. All of this will be supported by an Impact Campaign, where we can focus on the needs of the people of Flint today in 2020. If we achieve all of those things and get the story of the people of Flint getting out to as wide an audience as possible, I feel that we will have accomplished our mission."

What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers who look up to your work?

"One of the phrases I have kept reminding myself of during the making of FLINT is – ‘make the film you want to make.' It’s so easy to find yourself in the position of being pulled in one way or another.

"Stick to your guns. And find a story that you would like to follow and that you could imagine still working on in a few years time. This film has taken much longer than I initially expected as it was important to do the story justice - and to get it right."

More about Flint

The film will show at Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday 1 March and will screen later in March at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital in Washington DC. To keep up with Anthony's work, you can follow him on Twitter.