These Filmmakers Spent a Year with the Cops in Flint

We spoke to the filmmakers behind Netflix's haunting new documentary series, 'Flint Town.'

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Mar 5 2018, 8:00am

March 2016: Officer Bridget Balasko holds a small child while her father is being searched and questioned. The suspect on the left claimed to have just lost his job and didn't have anywhere to go so he was just hanging in his car with his daughter until the child's mother got off of work. At one point, the child was crying and Balasko reached into the suspect's pocket to pull out a pacifier for her. No drugs were found and the suspects were eventually let go. Images courtesy of Netflix

Flint, Michigan, is in rough shape, and not just because of the water issue. Economic downturn after manufacturers abandoned the city has caused Flint to consistently place as one of the most dangerous and poorest cities in the nation. A severely understaffed police department meets at this intersection of poverty and violence, as 98 officers with limited tools and resources look to enforce the law for a city of 100,000.

This impossible challenge is the focus of the new Netflix series Flint Town, debuting today, which sees documentarians Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock spending a year with the city’s police. White-knuckled ride-alongs—spanning the gamut from active shooters to car chases to raids—are paired with intimate interviews with the officers, as the trio of filmmakers examines race relations and cops’ personal lives in equal measure. The cherry on top of an already compelling narrative is the year Flint Town was shot: 2016—a time that saw both the death of Philando Castile and the rise of Donald Trump.

VICE caught up with Flint Town’s directors to discuss filming on Election Day and how the series fits into today’s discussion of gun control.

VICE: What was the community's response to you making a series about the police department?
Jessica Dimmock: I think overall that was really positive. There were always going to be people that didn't want to talk about the police because there's a distrust there. Flint overall is a small city. It's 100,000 people. Lots of people have been there for generations. I think there was a real willingness on the part of the community to talk to us during interviews or engage with us on the street. A couple of times we got to situations before the police arrived, and I think that made for a really interesting perspective. We had the opportunity to see how the community felt about the lack of police, or needing them and waiting a long time for them to show up. I think it was validating for us to be there and witness that.

How was shooting on Election Day?
Dimmock: For the most part what we witnessed in Flint is a pretty harmonious department with a group of officers who are all in the same boat more or less, and in the same boat with the community they serve, more or less. There's a lot of commonality there. It's not just outsiders coming in. It's a mixed department racially, and they usually seem to see eye to eye, but on this issue they saw so differently. It was hard to understand how officers working side by side, policing a community with so many issues that became divisive with Trump's rhetoric, how they could work side by side. Were they seeing the city through the same lens? Eventually the dust settled, and they went on and did their job. In that high-stakes moment, it felt like things were really divided.

Drea Cooper: I think in retrospect, what we saw is the reality of America and the reality of American history. It culminates with how people grow up, how they think, and who they align themselves with politically. Those things don't just come down to your job. There are so many other factors that play into your political position. I think we were fortunate to have the ear of the police. It's a tricky episode, and I think it's going to be problematic for a lot of people, but I think the idea is not to beat around the bush. I would just hope the people trust the candor that comes out. If anything, the series is about pulling back the curtain and showing how people think and feel inside a place like Flint and inside a police department.

December 2015. A very gray morning outside of a party store in Flint, Michigan

How do you feel the series fits into the national conversation that's going on today, specifically related to gun control?
Dimmock: This is something we'd talk about in interviews. Police officers believe often in their guns and the ability of people to carry guns. This is something we'd debate with them a lot on. They would also talk about how much there's an assumption that when they pull any car over there's a gun inside, and that's because there are so many guns. We always talked from the standpoint of their safety and how much they need to be on guard.

Zackary Canepari: I think one of the factors to simplify this is they tend to just sort of lean into whatever the law is. They're like, "It is legal for people in Michigan to carry weapons, and that is the law. We enforce the law." That's the box they have. We did try to push them into more conversations about gun control. While they were so open to talk about so many different things, they didn't see the gun control issue being for them—even though, as Jess mentioned, they go up to every car like there's a gun in it.

January 2016. Police cadets DIon Reed, 20, and his mother, Maria Reed, train together at Mott Police Academy. The academy is a four-month program, and both Dion and Maria will be joining the Flint Police Department right after graduation. The Reeds will be the first new hires for the Flint Police Department in three years, after a series of massive cuts. And of course, they are the first mother and son to join the FPD together.

Could you talk about the visual style of the series? I found the imagery to be very vivid and beautiful, while also often incredibly terrifying, as you seemed to use tropes from action movies that when applied to real life are overwhelmingly intense.
Canepari: The answer to the first part of that is that Jess, Drea, and myself come from a very cinematic place. We're trying to make beautiful stuff. I think in a sense, we engage an audience and we want things to be beautiful and well-shot. Yet proactive policing is not pretty. It's ugly. There's a lot of going through doors, hitting people, tackling people. It's a lot of stuff that makes you cringe. Whether you're terrified or generally upset about what you might see in the show, hopefully it provides a complicated POV. Why did these guys do this stuff this way? Most of the time they can actually give you an answer for that question, and sometimes they can really prove it to be an accurate answer.

Dimmock: You mentioned the use of tropes, and I think that we want to do things that are familiar from narrative films or that feel familiar in a more dramatic setting. Then when viewers are engaged, they're engaged in a way that's immersive and has the ability to transport the viewer.

Cooper: For us, it's about getting the specific shots of seeing the guns and the clips and all that. It's an opportunity, where you can go, "Holy shit, these guys are not messing around."

August 2015. The Northwestern High School dance team performs during half time of the first football game of the season. As the population of Flint declines so does school enrollment. It’s gotten to the point that the city is considering consolidating all the remaining students into one high school.

How do you think this series could affect the relationship between communities and their respective police departments?
Dimmock: We didn't go into what we thought was a corrupt police department in hopes of unearthing something we were going to expose, but we did go in with a set of questions. We found it's a complicated relationship, and it's different from department to department. We hope it further complicates this relationship. As a New Yorker and someone who is coastal, I thought I had it figured out about the police, and I don't think that anymore. I hope our audience engages on that level too. I hope people who are anti-cop feel different watching this. I hope people who are solely pro-cop also feel different after watching this. That's our biggest hope.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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