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Bronx Documentary Center, Flint Is A Place
Locals participate in an environmental rally and a sermon at the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, celebrity Russell Simmons and a number of national Pastors. February, 2016All images © Zackary Canepari, courtesy of Bronx Documentary Center

This exhibition gives a voice to the forgotten residents of Flint, Michigan

A new art-documentary explores why this city is the poster child for the American Dream gone wrong

Flint, Michigan, is a place name synonymous with tragedy – and now it’s one taking centre stage in a new exhibition at Bronx Documentary Center.

In 1989, Michael Moore made the documentary feature film Roger & Me, showing ways in which the closure of several of the General Motors’ plants in the area devastated the local blue-collar community by creating mass unemployment. In a montage accompanied by the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – a dreamy lullaby/ballad of American idealism – Moore shows the scenes of urban decay that followed the closure of the factories – rat infestations, and families unable to move out.

In 2011, Forbes listed Flint as the fourth most dangerous city in the States. Just three years later, in 2014, after the city moved its water supply from Detroit city water to the Flint river in an effort to cut costs – albeit with a series of glaring mistakes. As a result, an estimated 100,000 residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead-contaminated water and a federal state emergency was declared. It was alleged that, during this time, fetal deaths in the city increase by 58 per cent. However, two-years-on, and despite many residents being too afraid to drink tap water, water bills in Flint remain some of the most expensive in America. In April, it was also announced that the free bottled water programme would cease because water quality was “well within standards” – the people of Flint don’t agree.

Flint Is A Place – a new project by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper – is a cross-platform episodic documentary series about the experience and perception of Flint which tells its peoples’ stories via a web link and a series of episodes. “What happens in Flint happens in many other American cities,” says the show’s press release. “But in Flint it happens all at once. It’s what makes Flint so important in the national conversation. It’s been like a testing zone for American mismanagement.”

“What happens in Flint happens in many other American cities. But in Flint it happens all at once”

In 2010, filmmakers Canepari and Cooper first collaborated on a documentary titled California Is A Place, and in 2015, they made their first feature documentary, T-Rex. This followed the story of Claressa Shields, the Olympic gold medal-winning boxer who hoped that sport would be her ticket out of Flint, and her younger sister Briana, who had no viable escape route. “Briana represents everyone who has been stuck in Flint. Tough. Charismatic. Resilient. Funny. Heroic, in a sense. Fighting every day. But stuck, stuck, stuck.”

In 2018, Canepari and Cooper’s Netflix Original documentary series Flint Town was released to critical acclaim – and Flint Is A Place picks up where it and T-Rex left off – by taking a deeper look into the lives of the people of Flint, a city with “a strong identity and deep scars.” This project is a touching portrayal of a community that’s undergone its unfair share of hardship. The multi-platform nature of this project creates a sense of immersion by including elements of virtual reality, interactivity, archival material, photography, graphic design, audio, public installation, animation, a book, newspaper, and, according to the website, “some other stuff too”.

The American Dream, which began as a vision of self-sufficiency and independence, has gone wrong and has somehow become one of excess. Amassing wealth at the expense of others is the leitmotif of capitalism, and what has happened to the people of Flint is the perfect paradigm of this. In September, it was revealed that Nestlé pays just $200 a year to bottle water pumped just two hours from Flint. While the media bandwagons and presidential campaigns have long since left – Hillary, Bernie, and Obama have all made stops there – Flint Is A Place is a compassionate insight into yet another working-class community who have been abandoned by its own government.

Learn more about Flint Is A Place and follow the episodes hereFlint Is A Place runs at Bronx Documentary Center until 27 May, 2018