First viewing of Janesville documentary draws criticism, hope

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Frank Schultz
Friday, August 17, 2012

— It appears that "As Goes Janesville" will be controversial.

The documentary about how the city dealt with the loss of its General Motors plant and related difficulties was shown to a large group for the first time Thursday.

Some thought the film could have said more about the people who worked to help Janesville recover from the devastating loss of thousands of jobs starting in 2008.

Some thought it unfairly made people look bad.

Some saw it as a springboard for discussion that could help the community.

Some perceived it as political.

The Gazette interviewed a panel of six local people after the first showing of the documentary to a large audience at Blackhawk Technical College.

Panel members disagreed on how well the film represented Janesville's reality from 2009 through early 2012.

"It was truly tragic that General Motors shut down," Rich Gruber said. "It truly affected a lot of people at GM, along with a lot of other businesses. But it didn't tell the successes that happened in the course of the past three or four years. It didn't really tell the story of the jobs that have been created here, the new beginnings that have occurred here. The film was really kind of a downer, from that perspective. It wasn't completely balanced."

Gruber said he was most impressed with the personal stories of the film's characters.

"If I were the filmmaker, I would have focused more on the human interest side of the movie as opposed to turning it into somewhat of a political drama," Gruber said.

Katie Kuznacic disagreed, saying the film accurately portrayed the state's divisive politics.

"This is reality, whether the business community likes it or not," Kuznacic said. "I think we need more people like Tim Cullen."

Sen. Tim Cullen was one of the film's five main characters. His role in the fight over union rights for public-sector workers is featured prominently.

Cullen comes off as someone in the middle. He asks protesters to allow Gov. Scott Walker to speak at the opening of a tourism center and is later called a "fake liberal" by one of them.

Mary Frederick was touched by what she saw as Cullen's search for compromise.

"Now we don't have that middle ground anymore, and that really scares me," Frederick said.

Frederick and others said they hoped the film would spark discussion that could help the community heal.

Mary Fanning-Penny said she was surprised by how emotional the film made her feel. She agreed with Kuznacic, saying: "I think politics are personal, so we could not see one side without the other."

Fanning-Penny said she would have liked to see more of the beauty of Janesville rather than gloomy scenes.

John Beckord said it made the city seem cold and dark.

But the film accomplished what it set out to do, which is to encourage discussion of what the community, state and nation are facing, Fanning-Penny said.

Frederick found the film accurate in its portrayal of the workers' travails.

"It's the new normal of what we're facing in this country" as people go back to school in their 40s and face lower-paying jobs, Frederick said.

Beckord said the film contains inaccuracies. One example is the clip that was released early, showing Gov. Scott Walker and ABC Supply CEO Diane Hendricks talking about unions.

Banker Mary Wilmer is the third person in the scene. She is heard to say to Walker that he is "on target." But that was a comment not about unions but rather about a discussion of deregulation to help business, which the film did not show, Beckord said.

Wilmer comes off as harsh, Beckord said, and she is upset about it: "It wasn't what she thought when she signed on" to be one of the film's subjects.

Others thought it made Wilmer look heroic.

Kuznacic said it was touching to see how much the banker cared: "I don't think she comes across negatively at all."

Beckord also defended Hendricks, noting she's been vilified by some on the left for the scene in which she encourages Walker to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

Hendricks makes no apologies for her political views, Beckord said, but the film does not mention all her philanthropic efforts and that her company has been rated one of the best places to work in a national survey.

Beckord called the film "powerful" but said it shows Janesville as a "hotbed of controversy," that could drive prospective employers away.

Beckord, who is president of Forward Janesville, said the business association is considering options for countering what he sees as the film's message and telling "what we think is the middle-ground story."

Roger Anclam agreed the film "is not a billboard to come to Wisconsin and open your business," but he called it "well grounded and very accurate."

The story of Cindy Deegan, who retrained and found a job with less pay, particularly touched Anclam.

"It's darned tough. I've done it. She persevered. She did it," he said.

Anclam said that the union-versus-business conflict is not always useful. He noted that the two sides have worked to create jobs, and he said unions had a seat at Forward Janesville's table when economic development efforts were discussed.

Most of Thursday's audience comprised Blackhawk Tech staff members, who were there for a back-to-school training session. Some BTC employees had objected to the showing of the film on political grounds, and they were allowed to skip the showing, said Sharon Kennedy, vice president of learning.

BTC officials decided to show the film "and let everyone draw our own conclusions. This is, after all, what we expect of our students in the classroom," Kennedy told the crowd.

Several BTC staff members commented after the viewing. One said the story of Deegan, who retrained at BTC after losing her job, was an accurate portrayal of the challenges that many such students have faced.

Another staff member who acknowledged he was "not a fan of Scott Walker" said he would have liked to have seen more about the poverty, homelessness and social problems that came with the sudden loss of jobs, rather than the fight between the Republicans and Democrats.

Answering the questions was Sachin Chheda, who represents the film's director, Brad Lichtenstein.

Chheda said the five people whom the film follows were chosen in 2009, without knowing what would happen to them.

"Those were their stories, so those were the stories we were able to tell," Chheda said. I hope it doesn't diminish the other challenges."

Chheda said the film is meant for a national audience, not just for Janesvillians. Janesville is meant to be an example of the recession's effects around the country.

"Our feeling is that every character in the movie is very sincere in what they're trying to do," Chheda told the crowd.

And all the characters are shown with their "warts," Chheda said.

"Does the dialog continue? Will there be community forums? Will there be opportunities to address any misinformation and further clarify things?" Fanning-Penny asked.

Chheda said the filmmakers would like to work with Forward Janesville and others to continue the dialog and to address any inaccuracies.


The Gazette assembled a cross-section of community, business and labor leaders to watch Thursday's showing of "As Goes Janesville" at a Blackhawk Technical College in-service session. Two were last-minute cancellations.

After watching the documentary, the group sat down with a Gazette reporter to share their reactions to the film. Group members included:

John Beckord

Beckord has been president of Forward Janesville since 2001. Responsible for the overall management of the organization and economic development activities of the organization, he also serves as one of the five professional economic developers responsible for executing the Rock County 5.0 initiative.

Mary Frederick

Frederick is program director at The Alzheimer's Support Center of Rock County. She joined the office in 2010 after working for 38 years in training and education for United Auto Workers Local 95/General Motors. Named a "YWCA Women of Distinction" in 2008, she holds a bachelor's degree from UW-Madison and a master's degree from UW-Whitewater.

Rich Gruber

Since 2002, Gruber has been vice president for Mercy Health System, where he's responsible for community advocacy, government relations at the federal, state and local levels and other relationships. Prior to Mercy, he worked in local government management and administration for more than 20 years.

Katie Kuznacic

Since 2010, Kuznacic has served as director of development at UW-Whitewater, where her focus is major gift cultivation. She previously worked as a legislative aide and district director for former Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan. Kuznacic also served on the Rock County Board of Supervisors from 2008 to 2010.

Roger Anclam

Anclam is a retired General Motors worker and United Auto Workers union negotiator who was active in the recall-the-governor movement.

He is chairman of the Turtle Town Board and he ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly as a Democrat in 2010.

Mary Fanning-Penny

Earlier this year, Fanning-Penny was named executive director of Rotary Botanical Gardens. Previously, she worked in communications for Alliant Energy and was the communications manager at GM-Janesville. She has years of community service with United Way of North Rock County, the YWCA and other organizations.

She is married to an ex-GM employee who relocated to Arlington, Texas, and who recently left GM to work at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill.

Last updated: 5:08 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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