By Patsy Isenberg
On Saturday evening, Oct. 21, hundreds of people filled The Whiting to get a first look at a movie about Flint’s water crisis called “Flint.” The movie will be broadcast on the Lifetime Network this Saturday, Oct. 28.
According to the directors and those in Flint on whose lives the movie is based, it is mostly factual and well-researched. But they stress it’s not a documentary.
Nonetheless, water activist Melissa Mays, who is featured prominently in the movie–played by Marin Ireland– said she thought the movie portrayed what she and other Flint residents had gone through very well, and ended up making the point that people’s voices matter.
She said she also was gratified that the film clearly lets viewers know that “we’re not near done.”
Many of the people involved, like Mays and prominent water activist Nayyirah Shariff were portrayed by actors using the Flint residents’ actual names.
A handful of officials central to the story also were portrayed, including Hurley pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, EPA scientist Miguel del Toral, and a professor from Kettering.
Some scenes were filmed here, according to the movie makers, but the main base for production was Toronto. That is because, they suggested, state tax incentives for film makers were eliminated by Gov. Snyder in July of 2015. In the end the film was made in Canada. It was directed by Australian director Bruce Beresford from a screenplay written by Josh Sanburn.
The free event was sponsored by the Lifetime Channel and had the feel of a premiere with lots of cameras, many of the actors present, and the attendees were treated to giveaways.
One audience member, Nakia Wakes of Flint, said she was especially interested in the movie because she is featured in it. Her companion, Cedric Taylor, from Central Michigan University said he is making his own film, a documentary, called “Not a Drop to Drink,” about the crisis, that Wakes will be in as well.
At the end of the film, an additional piece was aired showing real residents and their daily struggles. Wakes was in some of those scenes. Lifetime spokespersons said that end piece will be broadcast on TV as well in which it’s made clear that the crisis is not over.
Before the movie was shown, two actors, Betsy Brandt, originally from Bay City, and Marin Ireland, who portrayed Melissa Mays, came on stage and introduced themselves to the crowd. They said they were glad to meet so many residents of Flint and were very sympathetic to the cause here.
As the screening got underway, viewers’ reactions were audible all the way through. The film showed significant dates and names of events and people known here, as well as city scenes familiar to Flint residents. When a character was well-known to the audience, people laughed or cheered, depending on whether that character was liked or disliked. Some got heavy applause. Pastor Alfred Harris, EPA scientist Miguel DeToral, and Hurley pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, for example, got big applause.One major character was clearly fictional, Iza Banks. That role was played by Queen Latifah, who wasn’t at the screening.
The audience laughed at a fictional restaurant shown named Chew Chews where people gathered. Also getting big negative responses were mentions of how quickly water bills rose at the time, and an official who referred to the first group of activists as “soccer moms and a bunch of housewives.” When a character playing then-Mayor Dayne Walling reported at a council meeting that the claims about the quality of the water were “exaggerated,” there were a lot of groans and cynical chuckles. And there were also some tears.
After the screening, Laura McIntyre from “Truth Against the Machine” asked Shariff whether anything in the movie didn’t ring true. Shariff pointed out a scene showing volunteers picking up testing kits to deliver to residents and said,
“That wasn’t accurate,” she said. “Like we already had our people, so we already knew who those kits were gonna go to and they came and picked them up for the most part and we did a full on educational two-hour session to make sure people really had confidence in doing their own tests and were able to answer any questions… people picked them up as well.”
In the movie, volunteers just showed up suddenly and started grabbing boxes of kits and it seemed quite unorganized. She added, “The Coalition for Clean Water, the old school Coalition for Clean Water,” she laughed, “that was pretty organized. We troubleshooted everything before we unrolled it.”
Nayyirah’s character in the movie was shown to have a lot of the traits and the personality that the real Nayyirah has. For example, she said, her character had a talent for cooking.
One resident who attended the screening, Jill Robison, was in the lobby after the screening and indicated how much the crisis still continues and the city gradually replaces its pipes. “There were some trucks and they were on my street,” she said. She said she got excited and asked one of the workers, “Are you here putting in new pipes?” He told her that he wished he could tell her that was true, but instead he said they were only testing to see what kinds of lines residents had so that they could determine “who gets what.”
Robison also mentioned an incident in May of 2016 that was quite disturbing to her. She said it happened shortly after the water was switched back to Detroit water. She said “they were telling us to flush our systems, and one night I turned that water on in the kitchen and little tentacles came out.” Eventually a fin also began to emerge.
Three days later, she said she called activist Melissa Mays. Mays, Scott Smith and Miguel DeToral from the EPA came to her house to see it. She said they speculated it was something trying to get out of the pipes whenever the water was turned on. They conducted tests on the faucet and later determined it was an amoeba.
Reflecting on her experience being part of the movie and whether she liked it, Mays said, “Yeah, I knew it was a lot to cover. Because I mean it was 18 months of our work, you know, into a 90-minute movie but they did show…the truth that the residents did the testing. It was the residents that went out there every day. And that was amazing to see. You know the outside media likes to give it (credit) to the PHDs and I mean they have quite an important part, to validate what we were already saying. And so I think that part was important.
“At the end of the movie,” Mays continued, “they let people know we’re not near done. That was something that, when I worked with the screenwriter, I told her she has to push. And she did, they did make it a big part of that.
“So I said, please let people know that we’re not better, we need help still. And, so yeah, I was actually impressed. And there were some funny parts and some real personal parts… the screenwriter came here for almost a year interviewing us and a whole bunch of people… and the actress who portrayed me [Marin Ireland] came and stayed with me.
“She went to the doctor with me because she knew so much about my medical conditions. She put a lot into it. They got our families, they showed what we were going through without getting too personal and without glazing over everything…it was done to us…they blew us off.
“And they even admitted in the movie,” Mays said. “They should have listened to the people. The number one lesson that everybody needs to learn, your voice matters. Elected officials and PhD’s need to listen to the people. They are the real true experts because they’re living through the crisis.”
In the days following the premiere here in Flint, Sharif and Mays said, they are going to Washington, D.C. and New York City for two more premieres and further interviews and panel discussions.
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.