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The Water Front

In Highland Park, MI an unelected, state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager with quasi dictatorial authority sees water privatization as key to economic recovery.

A printer-friendly version of this page 53 minutes
SDH Captioned>>

Directed by Liz Miller
Produced by Red Lizard Media
Cinematographer: Liz Miller
Editors: Liz Miller, Susan Shanks, Frederic Moffet and Etienne Gagnon
Original Music: John Brennan
Theme Music: Joe L. Carter
Narration: Achebe Powell

"Should be viewed by everyone concerned about the survival of our communities and the just and equitable distribution of water resources." Bunyan Bryant, Ph.D., Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative, University of Michigan
What if you lived by the largest body of fresh water in the world but could no longer afford to use it?

With a shrinking population, the post-industrial city of Highland Park, Michigan is on the verge of financial collapse. The state of Michigan has appointed an Emergency Financial Manager who sees the water plant as key to economic recovery. She has raised water rates and has implemented severe measures to collect on bills. As a result, Highland Park residents have received water bills as high as $10,000, they have had their water turned off, their homes foreclosed, and are struggling to keep water, a basic human right, from becoming privatized.

The Water Front is the story of an American city in crisis but it is not just about water. The story touches on the very essence of our democratic system and is an unnerving indication of what is in store for residents around the world facing their own water struggles. The film raises questions such as: Who determines the future of shared public resources? What are alternatives to water privatization? How will we maintain our public water systems and who can we hold accountable?

Grade Level: 9-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2008     Copyright Date: 2007
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-764-7

"This water issue is so profound I had no idea that we would be engaged in this horrific fight to have water acknowledged as a human right."
Maureen Taylor, Michigan Welfare Rights

"Water is not only an issue affecting poor countries. Everywhere in the world, people are facing a diversity of difficulties in accessing water. And the characters Liz Miller chose to portray in her film are particularly strong, in their interesting way of facing up the situation, reacting, gathering, getting involved and fighting together. Covering all water issues, from pricing to privatization and--above all--the human right to water, this film sends a strong message on the way public participation and action can overcome problems."
Melanie Giard, Communication Officer, World Water Council and Kostas Vassilakis, Official Secretary, Special Permanent Environment Protection Committee, Greek Parliament

"Miller's film does precisely what documentaries do best: it introduces us to a problem, sticks with it without losing focus and somehow makes us care deeply about the struggles of the people in front of the camera."
Montreal Gazette

"When Highland Park's residents stand at their kitchen sinks, they confront deindustrialization, capital flight, suburbanization, neoliberalism, and profound inequality in the period of late capitalism. Rather than exploring these issues in the abstract, Liz Miller offers thoughtful, poignant portraits of the Black women and men on the ground. As the scenes move from their living rooms, through the city's water treatment plant, and to city council meetings, The Water Front illumines how public policies influence the lives of everyday people, and, importantly, how everyday people can organize to influence public policies. Miller's imagery calls into question Americans' habits and chores: viewers are compelled to reconsider quotidian acts like bathing, flushing, washing, and watering after watching the film. The Water Front will inspire conversations and debates about public services, human rights, and community organizing."
Dr. Kelly Quinn, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Miami University

"Undoubtedly water will be one of the key issues to be fought over in the 21st century -whether you live in Highland Park, Michigan or Soweto, South Africa. To date people in Highland Park struggle to pay their highly inflated water bills in order to stay in their homes and keep their families together. The Water Front is an amazing movie that chronicles the institutional abuses of citizens in a city where fresh water resources are abundant. The threat of privatization and the commoditization of water strike a devastating blow to the working class and those least able to eke out a living. This movie should be viewed by everyone concerned about the survival of our communities and the just and equitable distribution of water resources."
Bunyan Bryant, Ph.D., Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment

"Powerful and moving."
Martha Saxton, Associate Professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies, Amherst College

"Brilliant and engaging."
Professor Bruce Pietrykowski. Director of Urban and Regional Studies, University of Michigan-Dearborn

"The Water Front depicts the result when cities with single industries lose both jobs and tax base. With insufficient capital, but an intact infrastructure, Highland Park, Michigan attempts to revitalize its coffers by using city water as a marketable commodity. The film examines the controversy between city officials and residents, who perceive city services from opposite points of view, respectively, as a source of funds, and as a right. This film will generate much discussion on the nature of political participation, the interlinking roles of local and state government, and the function of publicly owned utilities."
Kate Foss-Mollan, PhD, Dept of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Author, Hard Water: Politics and Water Supply in Milwaukee

"Films like this are a way of putting a mirror to our society."
Elaine S. Charnov, Co-Director, Margaret Mead Video and Film Festival, in The New York Times

"The life of a documentary lies in the stories of the public. The Water Front project is a compelling case that reveals how true this is."
Center for Social Media at American University

"Arguments are rarely black and white, and Liz Miller skillfully interviews everyone involved. We are able to walk through Highland Park, go into people's homes, and visit government offices. Miller weaves images of water, hooking you with its beauty and vital necessity. She makes you weep for these people. With the world in crisis, particularly the current economic and environmental mess, this is a must see film. At fifty-three minutes, educators should use this film in the classroom to show how a real democracy can and should function. We can fight the system, we just need to learn how to do it!"
Feminist Review

"The residents of Highland Park are allowed to tell their stories for themselves, with little intrusion by the filmmakers. The social implications of this struggle are suggested rather than belabored. While the city's consultants want to run the water works like a business, the filmmakers ask if the necessities of life should be sold for a profit...This would be useful in college-level courses that deal with race and class, privatization, leadership, local government, grassroots organizing or economics."
Katherine Walker, Virginia Commonwealth University, Anthropology Review Database

"Rather than a sense of hopelessness, 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."
Metro Times Detroit (6/5/2007 article)

"Deeply moving and incisive...The film has been out for a while now...Over time, though, it has only become more pertinent...This film is about much more than water. It gets to the essence of democracy itself, and how an essential natural resource that has no substitute is controlled...One way or another, this is a film you should see."
Metro Times Detroit (11/11/2009 article)

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DVDs include public performance rights.

DVD Features
4 extra short films including interviews with Maude Barlow, Vivenne Bennett, and an award-winning 7-minute version of the film. Language options are Spanish, French, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The Water Front Website
Activist Guide to the film
Study guide

Awards and Festivals
Best of the Festival, Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival
Community Empowerment Award, National Council for Community Reinvestment
Katherine Knight Award, EarthVision Environmental Film Festival
Best Water & Wetlands Film (Ramsar/Medwet Award), Ecofilms Rodos International Film and Visual Arts Festival
Silver Drop Award, International Water and Film Events, World Water Forum, Istanbul
Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival
Society for Visual Anthropology, American Anthropological Association, Film Festival
Environmental Film Festival In The Nation's Capital
Planet In Focus International Environmental Film Festival
Rencontres Internationales Documentary Film Festival, Montreal
Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Detroit Docs International Film Festival
3R's (Restoration, Revolution, Resurrection) Festival
Anthropology Film Festival at UBC
Human Rights Film Festival, Paris
Salem Film Festival
Northhampton Film Festival
Princeton Environmental Film Festival
San Francisco Black Film Festival
Environmental Film Festival of Catalonia, Barcelona
Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival
Berks Movie Madness Film Festival
Hamilton Social Justice Film Festival
Voices from the Waters Film Festival, Bangalore, India
Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival
Buffalo International Film Festival
Planeta Agua (Brazil)

African-American Studies
American Democracy
American Studies
Citizenship and Civics
Class Structure
Environmental History
Environmental Justice
Human Rights
Local Economies
Natural Resources
Political Science
Race and Racism
Social Justice
Urban Studies
Urban and Regional Planning
Women's Studies

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