By the time the Flint water crisis became a national news story in late 2015, Anthony Baxter had already been embedded in the Michigan town for several months, filming what eventually became his documentary, “Flint: Who Can You Trust.” In conversation with Variety deputy editor Meredith Woerner for Doc Dreams, presented by National Geographic, Baxter explained what drew him to the story in the first place, why he remained on the scene while others disappeared and narrator Alec Baldwin’s involvement with the film.

“I found residents telling me that they had been jumping up and down for over a year at that point since the water source was switched from the Great Lakes to the Flint River — the contaminated local river — and they had been raising the alarm about the color of the water, the smell of it, the fact that they were losing hair, that skin rashes — unexplained — were appearing on their bodies and nothing was being done,” Baxter said.

While Baxter was filming as a one-man team (he told Variety he ended up collecting more than 350 hours of footage in total), he witnessed the arrival of news outlets from around the globe, in addition to celebrities and politicians including actor Mark Ruffalo and former President Barack Obama, who Baxter said promised federal funding to replace all of the town’s lead pipes. When that didn’t happen, Baxter said it felt to the residents “like a huge betrayal.”

“It became a story of the world’s media descending on the city that I’d been in on my own for several months,” Baxter said. “It struck me that as soon as the cameras left, the people of Flint were left in this complete vacuum of not knowing who to trust, because they were being told that the water was now as safe as any other city in America, since the water was then switched back to the Great Lakes. But it was too little, too late and the damage had been done to the health of people in the city.”

The damage of the water crisis was immense, Baxter said. Professor Mark Edwards found that residents were consuming “toxic waste-levels of lead” in their water, and “Who Can You Trust” focuses on the erosion of public trust that took place in the town over time — especially after the arrival of the Water Defense group’s Scott Smith.

Backed by the Ruffalo-supported nonprofit, Smith went door to door analyzing his own water samples with his signature “water bug” creation. Publicly dueling with scientist Edwards’ over his findings, the argument escalates with the townspeople stuck in the middle. Smith would later retract most of his findings, another shock which would need to be absorbed by the Flint population and promped Baxter to step in front of the camera and address Smith in a sit-down interview.

“You need to hold certain people to account,” Baxter said of his decision to go on-camera. “I’ve come across this with Donald Trump in the film I’ve made previously, ‘You’ve Been Trumped.’ I never intended to be in the film, but when I was arrested and thrown in jail and then had to hold Trump to account, those kind of moments, you have to essentially represent the residents. So I sort of felt it was important for me to sit down and put these questions to Scott Smith, the Chief Technology Officer of Water Defense, because he had been very, very vocal on camera, on news bulletins the people were watching every day in Flint and across Michigan saying that the people were just not being told about all the contaminants in the water and that his testing was revealing things that were scientifically proven. And when Professor Marc Edwards, the leading water expert scientist at Virginia Tech University raised so many red flags about the research that Scott Smith was putting out as being factual, I thought then it was very, very important to hold him to account for those statements that had been made.”

Baxter’s coverage of this constant barrage of misinformation and confusion is nothing short of exhausting, and the viewer can’t help but feel the hopelessness of the Flint residents.

While the situation in Flint remains unresolved, Baxter said his documentary, shot over five years, is a comprehensive examination of the water crisis and its devastating effects.

“The people of Flint are still going through terrible stuff because of the wrong and bad decisions that were made,” Baxter said. “They’ve had to watch these court cases start, stop, nobody being held to account, they haven’t received a second of compensation for the damage done to them, and yet the story continues. The media has moved on, but the story of Flint hasn’t ended.”

The film itself has also found itself mired in uncertainty and Baxter recently turned to Kickstarter to try and find funds for more publicity. Narrator and executive producer Baldwin’s involvement in the “Rust” shooting incident in New Mexico caused this doc to be delayed. “It just felt the wrong time to be releasing the film,” Baxter said. “I was worried that the story of the Flint residents would yet again be overshadowed and we sidelined if we released the film then.”

Towards the end of the film Baldwin appears in Flint, discussing the continued water problems with the citizens. “He saw a rough cut and he wanted to go to Flint to meet some of the residents and speak to the mayor,” Baxter explained. “I felt there were some important things that emerged in that filming,” including his conversation with former mayor Karen Weaver.

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons though, working with celebrities. It’s been a very difficult journey for us having this element to the film because canceling a release is a very expensive thing when you’ve paid for publicity and then you have to pay for publicity again… You have to cancel interviews with ‘Morning Joe,’ with ABC, with all of these networks who are going to do the film story the first time, because you are worried that it’s going to be overshadowed by what’s happened that you could have never predicted. So we had COVID and then we had that happen. Now we’re in 2022. Alec’s a terrific narrator. He imparts this story, this important story as an American to America. I think that is a strong enough reason to keep the film as is, and to let people make up their own minds about the story and what happened in Flint rather than concentrating on that aspect.”

Watch the full conversation in the video above.