As first conceived, the documentary The Water Front was supposed to look at the issue of privatizing municipal water systems. But it ended up being about much more than that.
The subject drew the attention of Montreal filmmaker Liz Miller because, as she says, access to clean and affordable water is expected to become a major issue over the next 20 to 30 years. After considering locations in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the United States, she settled on Michigan's Highland Park as the focus of her film.
The fact that people living amid the world's largest supply of fresh water were having their flow shut off intrigued her. But after she started filming more than four years ago, the narrative began to grow in scope and complexity.
"I went in there thinking I was going to be telling a story about water," she says. "But then it became a bit of a spider web."
It morphed into a story about a "postindustrial city in crisis," with issues of race and class and poverty weaving their way into an increasingly tangled storyline.
There is, however, one aspect of the film that didn't change. From the outset, Miller, an assistant professor of communication studies at Montreal's Concordia University, wanted the documentary to be a catalyst for dialogue and an inspiration for individuals in search of solutions.
In that regard she's already found success. Following a premiere showing in Highland Park earlier this month, about 20 environmental groups met to discuss how they could use The Water Front as an educational and organizing tool.
"Privatization is a very real threat," says Lynna Kaucheck, a community organizer for the Ann Arbor-based group Clean Water Action. "We think we can use this film to get people thinking about the issue of water rights."
Whether it's corporations turning a profit by bottling this valuable natural resource and shipping it out of state or turning over control of municipal systems to private entities as cities look for ways to deal with budget crises, there is growing concern about whose hand will be on the spigot.
Highland Park began teetering toward insolvency in the 1980s when Chrysler moved its corporate headquarters to Auburn Hills, taking much of the city's tax base with it. The population has dropped from a high of 60,000 to about 16,000. The water struggle in Highland Park may be extreme, but it's not unique.
As Marian Kramer, chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization, says in the film: "The fight in Highland Park is also the fight in Detroit, the fight in Highland Park is the fight in Benton Harbor, in Flint, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in China and all the places when it comes to a question of water. It becomes a global problem."
The film focuses on a roughly four-year period beginning in 2001 when then-Gov. John Engler put Ramona Henderson Pearson in charge of the city's finances and placed the struggling city under state receivership.
As water rates increased and bill collection was made a priority, some residents found themselves owing thousands of dollars or more. Water was shut off for those who fell behind. As is noted in the film, a home with no running water is automatically subject to condemnation, and the children living there can be taken from their parents and forced into foster care.
Welfare rights activists such as Kramer and Maureen Taylor became involved, and residents began to rally in opposition. A woman named Vallory Johnson became one of the leaders of the opposition and a focal point of the film.
Then the city began attaching delinquent bills to property taxes. If those went unpaid, the homes were seized. Finally, an attempt was made to turn over control of the city's water system to a private operator. Community opposition forced the City Council to reject that plan, but the problem of water shutoffs and foreclosures remains and not only in Highland Park.
Detroit has also begun attaching unpaid water bills to property taxes as part of a push to collect late bills. "Detroit shuts off water to scofflaws: City had tried amnesty program to collect $24M in delinquent bills; critics worry about the poor," read a headline in last Saturday's Detroit News.
Advocates see disaster looming in a city where as many as 45,000 customers a year receive shutoff notices. A water affordability plan that would allow low-income residents to pay reduced fees has been approved for Detroit but has not yet been implemented. A similar plan is being considered for Highland Park.
"We're not saying free water," says Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. As with Detroit, Taylor and others are advocating a plan for Highland Park that would offer residents water with a sliding scale of rates based on income.
Also being considered is the possibility of selling excess Highland Park water to other communities, or bottling it for sale to raise revenue for a city that remains mired in debt.
Rather than a sense of hopelessness, though, The Water Front delivers the message that the people of a community can retain control of their fate if they join forces in resistance to outside interests that try to gain control of a resource as precious as water.
Johnson, who died last year, articulated that point.
"The only thing that people can do is band together," she said. "They are going to have to do that around water. Maybe they don't think so, but they are. I think people need to pay attention and wake up."
A trailer for Liz Miller's film can be viewed online at thewaterfrontmovie.org.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]