'As Goes Janesville' debuts locally

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Frank Schultz
Monday, October 8, 2012

— When the going got tough, people did what they believed they had to do.

That might be one message from "As Goes Janesville," the documentary film that made its Janesville premiere Sunday night at Parker High School.

"I didn't think I could do it, but with friends and family, you'd be amazed at what you can do to adapt," said Angie Hodges, a General Motors worker who had to choose whether to transfer to the GM plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., or lose her retirement.

It's not Rosie the Riveter with her "We can do it!" motto, but the characters showed that they could, indeed, do the hard work and survive the heartache.

"We do what we have to do to survive and take care of our families. That's what I've done," said Cindy Deegan, who was laid off from Alcoa, went back to school at Blackhawk Technical College and now works as a medical lab technician.

"Sometimes you just have to do things you're not comfortable doing. That's the bottom line," said Gayle Listenbee, who like Hodges, had to leave family for Fort Wayne.

After the showing, the displaced workers from the film indicated their lives have improved, although Hodges and Listenbee still spend most of their time in Fort Wayne.

They are like hundreds of other GM workers who still leave their families behind to keep their jobs and pensions, Listenbee noted.

An audience of several hundred watched and sometimes applauded or laughed during the film.

The film didn't start out to tell the story of Gov. Scott Walker, the public employee unions and the hard feelings that resulted. Those things hadn't yet happened when filming began in 2009.

It started out telling the stories of people caught up economic chaos.

"It's about what happens to a community when a giant manufacturer walks out on short notice and leaves everybody high and dry," Cullen said.

The families of Deegan, Hodges and Listenbee were dislodged from their relatively comfortable lives. They were three of the film's five main focuses. The others were Cullen, who was involved in trying to save the plant, and Mary Willmer, the local bank president who helped lead Rock County 5.0, the business development group that continues to try to reinvent Rock County's employment base.

Willmer did not show up for the showing.

Willmer in the film calls the economic disaster "gut wrenching" and is shown as someone determined to improve matters through business development.

"It's affecting our entire community … we don't want to paint a picture of doom and gloom in this community," Willmer says in the film.

But politics get in the way, which director Brad Lichtenstein said is one of the film's lessons.

Cullen, a Democrat who opposed Republican moves in the Legislature, is said to be mostly shut out of Rock County 5.0 discussions.

Cullen on Sunday called the group self-appointed business leaders who decided to lead the community back to prosperity.

The entire community—people from all walks of life—have not been part of that conversation about their future, Cullen said, although that conversation could still happen.

"It's never too late, because we've got a long way to go. It's going to take a long time" to return to prosperous times, Cullen said.

The film is not shy about pointing out the political divisions that arose out of the economic disruptions, and the crowd at Parker—at least the ones who laughed and applauded—seemed to favor the workers, the unions and the Democrats.

At the question-and-answer session, Lichtenstein asked speakers to hold the political comments.

"We need to try to get past the deep political ideologies we hold and see what we hold in common in order to be able to solve our problems," Lichtenstein said. "I hope that's a message the film can convey."

Lichtenstein proudly told the crowd the film recently won awards at the Milwaukee Film Festival and Columbia Gorge International Film Festival. A review in the New York Times calls it "a political thriller."

Politics aside, it's an intimate look at a few of the thousands of local lives that were thrown into disarray.

Listenbee said the '86ers, those Janesville GM workers who had to move to Fort Wayne in 1986, welcomed the new Janesville workers, which helped a lot.

"They told us, 'hang in there; it gets easier,' and it does," she said.

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

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