Director talks about making of 'As Goes Janesville'

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, October 7, 2012

— Those who attend tonight's Janesville premiere of "As Goes Janesville" will see not only the documentary but also meet some of the local people it portrays.

The film tracks the aftermath of the closing of the city's General Motors plant nearly four years ago and the efforts of local people to recover.

The story is told through the lives of five people, most or all of whom are expected to be on stage to answer questions at the end of the screening tonight. Angie Hodges, Cindy Deegan, Tim Cullen and Gayle Listenbee have agreed to attend. The fifth main subject is Mary Willmer, a Janesville bank president. She was still a question mark when The Gazette talked to filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein last week.

Lichtenstein also plans to be there. He said he wants the film to be a springboard for deep conversations about what's next for America after the blows suffered by so many in the Great Recession.

That has already started. The film has been shown at about 30 locations around the country, with 100 more this month, Lichtenstein said.

"I hope that no matter what your preconceptions are about this film, that you'll come out and participate in this civic dialogue about it," Lichtenstein said.

Following are some of Lichtenstein's' answers in a telephone interview:

Q: Are you excited about bringing the film to Janesville?

A: "I'm excited, and I'm nervous. What I really want is for the film to be a catalyst for discussion about all the political and economic issues it raises, and I think, where would that discussion be more potent and important than in Janesville?

" … But bringing the film to the community where people will know the people in the film and who will be very invested in everything that's happened over the past two, three years is enough to make a person nervous."

Q: Why did you focus on women who were laid off?

A: "I felt a lot of people already knew a part of this story—people laid off. … So the focus on women, who are also the primary caregivers at home, not just the breadwinners—having to leave your kids and what the dilemma is when that's put in front of you—was very interesting to me."

Willmer wasn't laid off, but "Mary is so invested in the community that she was irresistible as a person to follow and tell her part of the story."

Lichtenstein said he started following Cullen because he was involved in the task force that tried to save the plant, and then Cullen ran for state Senate and became involved in the political battles that tore the state apart in 2011, which are also shown in the film.

Q: You've taken criticism, especially from some in the local business community, that it put them in a negative light. What do you say to them?

A: "People at Rock County 5.0 (the group trying to re-energize the local economy) and Forward Janesville have been very critical of the film and me lately. I hope they all show up and join the discussion."

"I don't want to pretend I'm a publicity agent for Janesville or for Rock County. I think that's actually what is behind some of the criticism of the film right now. … I understand Rock County 5.0 is completely absorbed in selling the community to businesses, to get them to invest here. … That's a very different job than mine, which is to try to engage in very difficult conversations about the economy and jobs and what makes a good job and what is an appropriate way to reinvent a community."

Lichtenstein said he has heard mostly praise at showings around the country.

"People are constantly saying the film is extremely evenhanded and treats everybody fairly and humanely and has a broad range of viewpoints. … I tried to make a film that would be engaging. … People tell me they are really sucked in by the film. It's also just a good story."

Q: What do you say to people who think this is a left-leaning, politically motivated film?

A: "I say, watch the film."

Lichtenstein said moments in the film are open to a variety of interpretations, not just the ones that are the most politically charged. Gov. Scott Walker's now-famous remarks to Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply, for instance, could have been Walker saying what he thought Hendricks wanted to hear, so maybe he wasn't expressing an actual plan to "divide and conquer" public- and private-sector unions.

Lichtenstein said a reporter from The Progressive magazine recently suggested to him that Rep. Paul Ryan is a hypocrite for trying to get federal dollars for his district while at the same time criticizing the spending of federal money to reinvigorate the economy.

"My response is, who cares? I think the charge of hypocrisy, in terms of degree, is so much less important than if we decided to look at federal funding in localities and asked: Are these dollars accomplishing something, or are they being wasted, and could they be used more effectively? … I'm doing my part to make the issues more complicated, and if that pisses some people off, so be it," Lichtenstein said.

Q: So what's your purpose with this film?

A: Lichtenstein said he wants to improve communities by bringing together people who might be divided by ideologies, perhaps more so than at any time since the Civil War.

"We still have an economic crisis, but we're not going to solve it if we don't get past some of those differences."

Last updated: 4:53 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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