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"As Goes Janesville" documentary looks beyond county

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Jim Leute
August 17, 2012

— Brad Lichtenstein had a pretty good idea what kind of film he wanted to make when his crew arrived in Janesville more than three years ago.

Rocked by the closure of the local General Motors plant, the Janesville area also was starting to hemorrhage jobs in a free-falling economy.

With "As Goes Janesville," Lichtenstein set out to create a film that documents how a community and its residents try to reinvent themselves for better days.

The film, which made its Janesville debut Thursday at a private showing at Blackhawk Technical College, stays true to Lichtenstein's goal.

But it goes well beyond a simple focus on Janesville and Rock County.

Credit for that goes to the election of Scott Walker as governor and the ensuing political fallout, which commands a significant amount of Lichtenstein's attention.

"In the filmmaking process, you start with an idea and then balance that with the realities on the ground," said Lichtenstein, a Milwaukee moviemaker who is married to a Janesville native. "I'm happy with the film, proud of the film.

"I think in the end it's what we thought it would be, a film about how people and communities reinvent themselves in the face of severe economic upheaval."

The film is tentatively scheduled to make its public debut in Janesville on Sunday, Oct. 21, at Parker High School. The ticketed event will be free. The film will air nationally on the PBS "Independent Lens" series Monday, Nov. 5, the day before the presidential election.

According to promotional material, "'As Goes Janesville' catapults viewers to the front lines of America's debate over the future of our middle class—a debate that has become a pitched battle over unions in the normally tranquil state of Wisconsin."

Throughout the 85-minute film, Lichtenstein tries to accomplish that through the lives of five characters.

n Angie Hodges of Beloit was hoping to follow in the steps of her relatives by retiring from the GM plant, but it closed six years short of her expected retirement. To provide for her son, she leaves him behind and transfers to a GM plant in Indiana.

Her story takes a poignant turn when her son nearly dies in a car accident and she loses her job over absences to care for him.

-- Cindy Deegan lost her 13-year job when Alcoa stopped making tire rims for GM trucks. With no option for transfer, Deegan goes back to school—Blackhawk Technical College—to pursue a degree as a medical lab technician.

With unemployment and health benefits running out, Deegan and her family also deal with a lump in her breast that could be cancerous.

-- Gayle Listenbee went from a job at GM paying $28 an hour to the Rock County Job Center, where after repeated dead ends the best job she can find is one that pays $7.25 per hour.

She, too, takes a transfer to Fort Wayne, where she bides her time until retirement in the year one of her daughters will graduate from high school.

-- Tim Cullen was co-chairman on the task force trying to bring GM back to Janesville. When that fails, he turns his attention to the state Senate and becomes the only Democrat to win on Election Day.

Cullen joins 13 other Wisconsin senators in fleeing to Illinois to avoid action on Walker's contentious budget bills.

-- Mary Willmer is a local bank president determined to help Janesville. She helps put together Rock County 5.0, an initiative designed to market the area to prospective businesses.

Willmer co-chairs the group with Diane Hendricks, who also has a significant role in the film and unwittingly helps draw attention to it when she engages Walker in a discussion about the future of unions in Wisconsin.

In the heat of Walker's recall election, Lichtenstein released the Walker-Hendricks clip, which quickly became a much-covered news story.

That clip, footage of Cullen's travels in Illinois and the moving stories of the three displaced workers demonstrate the remarkable access Lichtenstein and his crew had in their filming.

"Access is a key element in telling a story, and getting that access is all about earning trust," Lichtenstein said.

"Some of the clips that have become viral have probably made people feel that they can't trust me. But I think once they see the full film in a crowd of people, those feelings will go away."

He said that the overwhelming response he's had so far attests to the film's fairness.

Lichtenstein hopes "As Goes Janesville" serves as a discussion point for solving legitimate problems.

"Politics in our country and certainly in Wisconsin have become so polarized that it's derailed the ability of people in communities to be able to talk to one another about issues and challenges," he said.

"I think people in this country know about the fight of the middle class in terms of numbers, but not necessary from what goes on in individual homes and lives and what affect depressed wages has on changing the middle class."



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