‘Water’ Works

. September 12, 2018.
The Flint water tower from the film “Crossing Water – Flint Michigan – 2017”  
Source: Holly Hey, 2018.
The Flint water tower from the film “Crossing Water – Flint Michigan – 2017” Source: Holly Hey, 2018.

To University of Toledo film professor and independent filmmaker Holly Hey, the art of cinema isn’t about making crowd-pleasing blockbusters— it’s about focusing the camera lens on important social issues.

Finding solutions

In her new 26-minute documentary Crossing Water – Flint Michigan – 2017, Hey shines her camera lights onto the non-profit social justice organization Crossing Water. This group of volunteers and social workers strives to provide clean water, social services, and access to resources to those residents of Flint who have been hit hardest by the city’s water crisis, which began in 2014 when the municipal water supply tested positive for dangerously high levels of lead.

A native of Bryan, Ohio, Hey has always been interested in making socially conscious cinema, but it was the 2016 election of Donald Trump that inspired her to zoom in even closer on the problems affecting America.

“I typically make work that has relevance to social justice because I am a lesbian, so my work often focuses about queer identity,” said Hey. “But with Crossing Water, I just felt like with the election I had to do something to help us be a better country.”
Hey’s wife and producer Lee Fearnside was heavily involved with the social activist group Pantsuit Nation on Facebook, which is how the duo connected with Crossing Water organization. “We decided at the time to find someone through Pantsuit Nation that needed media visibility to help make a better world.”

Holly Hey, director and co-producer of Crossing Water, is a professor of Film & Video at The University of Toledo.

Holly Hey, director and co-producer of Crossing Water, is a professor of Film & Video at The University of Toledo.

Systematic advantage

Hey connected with Crossing Water co-founders Michael Hood and Laurie Carpenter and soon travelled to Flint, Michigan to document the organization’s effort to provide social work and access to clean water to some of Flint’s forgotten residents. She also realized a stark social reality: The fact that she was Caucasian gave her an undeniable across-the-board advantage.

“I’m really at the point in my life where I see white systemic power as the root of all evil in America,” said Hey. “White systemic power is on full display in Michigan and (Governor Rick Snyder) is the beacon of that light. White people need to start talking about this, overtly and directly.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, Flint is 57 percent black, with 42 percent of the population living at or below the poverty line. Hey said her “whiteness” allows her to reach a broader audience.

“My film is doing great but it’s out there because these people are suffering. But if my film doesn’t give visibility to (Flint residents) suffering then it is less likely that they’ll get help. I’m trying to use my whiteness in a positive way and trying not to objectify people while doing so. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, ‘The medium is the message.’”

“Crossing Water – Flint Michigan – 2017” will air on local PBS-affiliate WGTE at 5pm on Sunday, September 16. For more information on Hey’s film, visit crossingwater.movie. For more info on the social activist organization Crossing Water, visit crossingwater.org