Growing up in Detroit, dream hampton would visit her grandmother downtown, where they’d go on walks in Hart Plaza and watch the river. “Water never stops moving,” her grandmother would tell her. That sentiment affected the young hampton, and it forms the backbone of her experimental short film Freshwater, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
In 2019, hampton produced three documentaries — one short film and two TV series, including Surviving R. Kelly. Having done 117 interviews about that show, she’s done talking about it. “I felt like I had been writing a bunch of essays and I needed to write a poem. For me, Freshwater was like healing,” she tells Hyperallergic in a phone interview. The film’s pace invites one to experience stillness in a way that is not granted by a TV screen or a theater. “Obviously museums are fraught spaces, but they allow the film a chance to be immersive, allow us to look away from the dozen tabs we have open in our minds,” she says when explaining her choice of venue. “And of course, Detroit made perfect sense.”
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Although climate change forms the basis of the film, it is not an urgent catastrophic narrative about the end of the world. It follows hampton as she travels in and out of flooded basements in Detroit homes, going back and forth through her memories of the city. It tells the story of a city, a world, and childhoods and lives that are slowly being subsumed by the water. She’s quick to clarify that “I’m not a nostalgic person, but I do live my life thinking about questions of memory and place.” Watching the film in the darkness of the museum, the sound of crashing waves and flowing water fills the room. hampton weaves a visual mosaic of girls playing hopscotch and twirling their hips in hula hoops, juxtaposed with quickly cut images of the Joe Louis Arena being razed.
“I always tear up at that scene. That’s where I went for my first concert,” she explains, echoing how in the film she recounts crying whenever she witnesses Black homes disappearing from neighborhoods. People are being pushed out by the water, rising rents, and the abject racism in US society. She remembers these houses and their people from her childhood, and had been thinking about “the lack of care” she was giving these memories. That’s why hampton uses Freshwater to visit basements in the flooded homes of Detroit — she’s trying to rescue photographs (and time) from mold and decay. “Basements are where we dump things, sometimes precious things. Things we don’t see every day, but we don’t throw away.”
It is only natural that Freshwater will be part of Simone Leigh and Rashida Bumbray’s Loopholes of Retreat, which will close the Venice Biennale this October. The film will be traveling to another city facing incomprehensible change because of rising water levels and flooding homes. It’s a reminder to all of us to tend to the basements of our homes and hearts with care before we lose it all.
Freshwater is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through August 14.