Interviews

An Activist Documentarian Charts Detroit’s Water Affordability Crisis

“Lack of transparency is the enemy of democracy,” said filmmaker and activist Kate Levy. “As an artist, that’s an easy thing to make work about.”

Image from I Do Mind Dying by Kate Levy (all images are still captures from the film with permission of the artist, except where noted)

DETROIT — Since 2013, artist Kate Levy has been involved in researching and documenting activism in Detroit, with a particular emphasis on gentrification, foreclosures, and water rights. She continues to update and recut her film I Do Mind Dying (2014-ongoing) to keep current on the battleground of Detroit home foreclosures due to exorbitant water bills, and offers the 50-minute film-in-progress for private screenings. Levy is also a co-founder of We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, a community research collective that has charted water foreclosures and compiled records as an offshoot of the work begun with Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, which was founded in 2012 in response to a power-grab that placed the city of Detroit under the decision-making power of a single, unelected official.

Levy has incredible flexibility when it comes to document-making. Often these documents are films, but sometimes she activates records in physical or digital configurations, as in Fate of the Machinery, a month-long installation for which she papered the walls of the gallery 9338 Campau in Hamtramck, Michigan, with records from her family’s auction house business.

Film still from I Do Mind Dying by Kate Levy

Earlier this year, the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley, MOSES, and Praxia Partners issued a long-awaited report on water equity in Detroit. The report featured several of Levy’s photographs on the water affordability crisis, and quotes her documentary film and research archive, I Do Mind Dying. “The Haas report details the underlying causes of unaffordable water bills, including a thorough explanation of the 83/17 split,” writes Levy in a summary of the report findings:

Under federal oversight, a majority-black population of 800,000 Detroiters has been forced to pay 83% of the costs to construct federally mandated regional sewerage overflow facilities. 3.5 million suburban dwellers pay only 17% of these shared costs. The rate split has been in place for 20 years. It has dramatically increased the costs of sewerage bills for the most economically vulnerable in the region, and is a major contributor to the mass shutoffs. The report also quantifies the costs of privatizing public operations through outside contracting, the shocking debt loads shouldered by Detroiters, and a regionalization agreement that removes political control from city officials.

Since 2017, Levy has been living in New York City. She is currently completing a new film that incorporates footage from five years of filming around Detroit. Levy spoke with Hyperallergic by phone to discuss the nature of her work and the state of water equity in Detroit.

Image of a gushing hydrant from I Do Mind Dying by Kate Levy

Sarah Rose Sharp: What brought you to water activism?

Kate Levy: Back in 2014, when I lived in Detroit, I was working with a group called Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. The city of Detroit had been placed under state receivership, and in Michigan that means that one person gets to take over all decisions for all elected officials. That group was specifically formed to educate people about that [situation]. One of the things we were trying to do was subvert this idea that the city was “coming back,” because it was only coming back for certain people, and the gentrification of downtown areas was specifically related to emergency management, because the Emergency Manager was approving all sorts of tax breaks and he was funneling resources for the neighborhoods into the downtown part of the city.

So I produced a video with them called Albert. It was an appropriated [promotional] video that a developer had made about a downtown condo where units were going for like $1,400 a month [introductory price for units was $1,130/month], where you previously paid $400 a month for an apartment. It was a Section 8 building, so I intercut footage of that promotional video with interviews with the seniors who were being displaced. Once I made that video, people started coming to me to talk to me about different issues that they saw manifesting as a result of emergency management. … A woman named Sarah Coffey came to me and said, “You know, the Emergency Manager is implementing a mass water shut-off campaign unlike the city has even seen before, but at the same time, water is just gushing out into the basements of previously foreclosed upon homes.”

It’s horrible when you find hypocrisy in the system of governance. It’s stomach-churning, because hypocrisy and autocracy go together: lack of transparency is the enemy of democracy, and we already had a democracy suspended. But as an artist, that’s an easy thing to make work about — so that’s what I did.

SRS: What did that initial process look like?

KL: I started documenting the water shut-offs for a number of years, working very closely with community organizers who were advocating for both an affordability rate, which the city vehemently resisted for many reasons — one of which was that [the city] claimed that the suburbs, which were a wholesale customer of Detroit, the 90% white suburbs would continue a cycle of blaming the city for inflating them on their rates. This has been a trend going back to the 1970s — the suburbs blaming Detroit for jacking up their rates — and it was just completely not true. The city was very afraid of the suburbs lodging a similar claim, so they made the argument that it was not permitted by state law. Subsequently, many third-party lawyers determined that it actually wasn’t a violation of Michigan state law. Philadelphia, which is under Pennsylvania laws that are quite similar, was able to implement an income-based support for that utility in 2017.

The other thing that I did with the community organizers was just sort of follow events that they were having. So what I had was this ongoing document of Detroit’s water affordability crisis, which manifested in water shutoffs. I would update this document a couple times a year. One of the things we focused heavily on was screening the film, as it was updated, to suburban audiences, because we understood the importance of recreating narratives about Detroiters for the majority-white suburbs. Another thing that was really important about the work was, there would often be journalists that would come into town — United Nations came, different national news outlets came — every six months or so, when there was some buzz about Detroit. It would happen for some explainable or unexplainable reason. So … I was able to provide footage that I had made with people who’d had their water shut off, who were directly affected by these shutoffs. It was helpful because these individuals didn’t want to have to tell their stories over and over again.

Stills from The Albert. In the top frame, a new resident says, “The Albert has so much to offer. It has a fitness center, a business center …” In the bottom frame, from footage intercut by Levy, a former resident says, “We are afraid of being homeless.” One hundred and twenty seniors were evicted from the Section 8 building to make way for luxury apartments in downtown Detroit.

SRS: So you were performing a kind of capacity-build for authentic news coverage not coming at the cost of having people relive their trauma?

KL: Yes, exactly. But it sort of cut both ways, where sometimes organizers would ask me to give footage to journalists, and then the journalists would contact me and also ask for connections with people that I had interviewed and [whose interviews I] was circulating online. Instead of hooking them up with these people, I would refer them to community organizers.

SRS: Did you encounter any pushback in this process?

KL: I was circulating a lot of complete interviews and cataloging a lot of research that I was producing on a website called detroitmindsdying.com, and that was a resource for journalists to be able to access these full interviews. One of the things I learned from that — myself having spent time [away from Detroit] in places where I wasn’t living — it’s always been my practice to take direction from the community organizers first, because they know the most. That doesn’t say that I wouldn’t then look for the opposition voice, but generally when it came to interviewing the activists, I would listen to the activists and organizers about who should be interviewed, and the topics, and which people were hardest hit by policy. It takes a minute to align with the organizers who are actually doing the work. One way that local journalists can be really helpful to national journalists is to connect them with the organizers who are doing the actual work. But sometimes this was perceived by visiting journalists as me acting as a gatekeeper, and I can understand their frustration with that.

However there needs to be a more symbiotic relationship between local and national journalism. I truly believe that built into the ethics of journalism should be the idea that the resources afforded to national journalists should be shared with local journalists. That’s a difficult thing to ask when journalism on all levels is so woefully underfunded.

Film still from I Do Mind Dying by Kate Levy

SRS: But it’s true that publications will pay for a non-local journalists to travel to a place where they don’t really know what they are doing, rather than commission the story from someone who is based there — so the resources go into things like hotels and airline tickets, instead of supporting the people doing the work.

KL: But the other thing that often goes under-resourced is the amount of research that community organizers do.

SRS: And that’s what Detroit Minds Dying is serving as?

KL: Well, I provided a lot of research to community organizers who were working on the water shutoffs, and I was also following their leads and receiving research from them. It’s rocky terrain, when you’re talking about national journalists resourcing community organizers to provide information.

SRS: But there’s something like the Haas Report, which is drawing on a lot of research that you did, footage you gathered, and records that you compiled.

KL: Right. So, I Do Mind Dying compiled years of research, and I remember Emily Kutil and I — we were co-founding members of We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective — along with a bunch of other people, like Monica Lewis-Patrick, Deborah Taylor, Aurora Harris, Cecily McClellan, and others — attempting to fill that gap between community organizers and journalists. What we did is a comprehensive mapping of where and how the water shutoffs were affecting neighborhoods, and that ultimately led to the Henry Ford Hospital health study that linked communicable diseases to the water shutoffs.

My research and re-cutting of the film I Do Mind Dying has continued and been updated about every six months, and that continues to inform the We the People database, as well as the Haas Report — and it also is informing the documentary that I’m currently working on, which is a feature-length piece that brings together five years of footage from Detroit. It brings together the water shutoffs, home foreclosures, and redistribution of wealth from the neighborhoods to the downtown corridor.

Installation shot from The Fate of the Machinery (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

SRS: And you’re working to finish this film while being based in New York?

KL: I moved to New York at the end of 2017 for personal reasons, but then I started working for an organization called Educational Video Center (EVC). What it does is teach documentary filmmaking to high school kids that society calls “at-risk” — I don’t use that word because I don’t agree with it. It’s a place where 15 teenagers come together for a semester and create a film together, and I am lucky enough to facilitate that process. One of the things that is great about it, apart from alerting youth to the fact that there are these tools available to them to create their own narratives, is to say, “Society calls you at-risk, but your story is actually an asset to make the world a better place.”

I cannot overstate the importance of people who are not white people, like [I am], in creating their own narratives, but I’ve always felt honored and like my work is best when I’m facilitating or supporting a process of narrative agency, and of oppressed communities being able to tell their stories in the way they want to tell their stories, at the time they want to tell their stories, and in the medium they want to tell their stories. My desire [at EVC] is to learn how to facilitate media-making with teenagers so that I can develop something that would be valuable for Detroit.

Film still from I Do Mind Dying by Kate Levy

SRS: It’s interesting — when I think about documentary filmmaking, I think of it being about storytelling, but when I think about your work that I’ve seen, I think about it as being more concerned with information.

KL: Ha! It’s so interesting that you say that, because for the first time in my life, I’ve been working with an editor. She’s a film person; she makes documentary films to tell stories. She’s meticulous in her research, but she’s still concerned with how cinematic audiences will respond, and using that language. That’s been stressful because she’s cutting things that are beautiful, but the meaning is subtle. I’m excited to see if she’s able to bring that same amount of analytic rigor and give it a little more breathing room, and hopefully make it accessible to mainstream film audiences. Because I feel like the mainstream films that have been made about Detroit have not had the level of rigor that they should have.

SRS: Right, they go for shock and awe, and people who aren’t accustomed to how it looks.

KL: Right, and I’ve always felt very strongly that the personal story is a very dangerous element of filmmaking because it can eclipse the institutional reasons that the personal stuff is happening. I think the best work is done when you take on a complicated subject who is the embodiment of the systemic harm. But one of the things that activists always ask me to do is capture the personal stories. My business is to understand what they’re saying, but also see where their arguments have holes — not because I want to poke holes in them, but because I want to fill in the gaps. So the personal story is valuable, but it’s easily overindulged.

The other thing is, when you feature activists doing the things that you expect an activist to do, like protesting in front of the water department, then you also might close the possibility for people who don’t consider themselves activists to relate. But I guess I say all this to say that information is imperative, and some documentaries are really successful at presenting the right amount of information, and some leave information to be desired — and my goal is to be the former kind of filmmaker.

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