Filmmaker looks at Detroit through the lens of water, life events and justice

Filmmaker looks at Detroit through the lens of water, life events and justice
August 9, 2023 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now

Making a film about water came naturally for award-winning documentary filmmaker dream hampton, though water and the environment has not traditionally been her emphasis.

hampton made Freshwater after coming off a hectic schedule in 2018 and 2019 during which she made three films. It was, she decided, a time to shift her focus, a time to be still and reflect.

Out of that period of quiet came Freshwater, “an unhurried film that, like the increasingly swollen Detroit River, is meant to flow,” hampton told the PBS POV series.

“Water is very important to me. When I’m at home, I’m at Belle Isle,” said hampton who like most Detroiters, sees the Detroit River island as a sanctuary of sorts.

But even away from home, water is a crucial element. “When I’m on the coast, I’m in the ocean,” she said.

Freshwater, hampton’s 10 minute, dream-like film links together place, the force of a natural element and our lives.

Great Lakes Now recently spoke with hampton. In a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness conversation, she described her early connection to the river, the flooding that has impacted the lives and memories of Detroit residents, the city’s social “divestment “and the threat of  climate change.

Profound revelation

hampton’s early experience with the Detroit River came via her grandmother who told her the river never stops moving. That was “profound,” hampton said.

Asked how she sees the river today, hampton said “I still see it as being deeply meaningful with all its history, caring memory, legacy and a possible future.”

But the river signifies something else to hampton – the early days of social justice.

“When I think about the Detroit River specifically I think about Detroit’s nickname on the underground railroad. It was code named Midnight. It was that last stop for people who had freed themselves from slavery by running away, it was that last stop before Canada,” she said.

Detroit’s island

Belle Isle is prominent in the opening scenes of the film and hampton talked about taking a nostalgic lap around it when returning to Detroit. Great Lakes Now asked if Belle Isle is still a special place? Or has it lost some of its unique appeal since it was taken over by the state as part of Detroit’s bankruptcy process?

“The place is separate from the politics, but it’s not like I don’t see what has happened since the state took over Belle Isle and began charging entry fees,” hampton said, adding she hasn’t seen the resources the state was supposed to bring to the island.

Overall, “Belle Isle has become less accessible to the people who were born and raised here, Black Detroiters,” she concluded.

Flooded basements

At the heart of the film is the flooding Detroit has experienced. Flooded basements, damaged homes and water-logged memorabilia are prominently featured.

Asked to elaborate on the flood experience, hampton said, “flooding eats your memories,” and she described losing decades-old family photographs and seeing the damage done to the American flag that draped her father’s casket.

She said she doesn’t think any city, state or country is doing enough to prepare people for the floods.

hampton lived on the Lower East Side of New York when Hurricane Sandy landed in 2012. She knew artists who lost all of their work and that experience prompted her to “hear all the conversations about water, flooding and climate related to the coasts,” and in turn inspired Freshwater.

Climate haven?

Will Michigan become a climate haven, Great Lakes Now asked hampton? A place where people in the southern tier states will move to escape the scorching heat that’s producing days and weeks of 100 degree plus temperatures this summer?

Anyone with a map can see Michigan is a cool-climate northern state surrounded by the Great Lakes and that makes the state a climate haven candidate, she said. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has weighed in proclaiming the state a climate haven but also cautioned that Michigan has to be more than that.

hampton is not onboard with the climate haven migration movement. “We absolutely should not promote ourselves as a climate haven,” she said.


The thread that runs through Freshwater however isn’t climate change, according to hampton. She said she was “thinking smaller,” thinking about divestment and noting that it is different from disinvestment. Divestment caused Black families to leave for nearby non-aspirational suburbs “where houses were slapped together after the riots. They were leaving their brick homes because of the divestment, because our school system fell apart.” hampton said she longs for the Detroit of her youth where, “as a Black person I felt free.”

“I felt like I could be on the river, and boating was something I could do. Belle Isle was a place where we could occupy public space and that was because we had political power at one point.”

Freshwater is available at POV | Freshwater | PBS.

(Editor’s note: hampton does not capitalize her name in honor of author bell hooks.)

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:

The Great Lakes in 2019: Senior Correspondent Gary Wilson’s look back at the headlines

The Cost of Keeping the Great Lakes Safe: An Interview with Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson

Featured image: dream hampton (Photo credit: Crystal Murphy via dream hampton)


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