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Film about Janesville plant should spark discussion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2012 - When General Motors shut the doors of its assembly plant in Janesville, Wisc., in 2008, about 2,000 residents who were used to good-paying union jobs making SUVs and pickup trucks were now in a town with more people than jobs. The story of what happens to this population is captured in the documentary “As Goes Janesville,” which is playing Oct. 3 at the Missouri History Museum.

“I had seen the story of men being laid off, and I found I was more interested in telling the story of women and what happens when the person who was identified more as the central figure of the family has to leave to find work,” explained Brad Lichtenstein who directed the film and will be in St. Louis to talk after the screening on Wednesday.

The women in the film are rooted in Janesville by way of their kids in school or a spouse with another company in the region. Their decisions to work hundreds of miles away or go into enormous debt to retrain in school came with difficult family choices. 

Lichtenstein captured more than just the hardships of families struggling to find work in this recession. He got intimate access to the business community including local economic development leaders who believed a strong marketing campaign would entice entrepreneurship and private companies to Janesville.

“My wife is originally from Janesville, I just started with people I knew,” explained Lichtenstein.

“When [Paul Ryan] was first nominated [to be the GOP vice president] some people were mad at me that he wasn’t in the film.” However Lichtenstein believes, “the film provides insight into the culture and community that produced Paul Ryan and the explanation of how a blue collar union town could turn into more of a Republican community, in a Republican state.”

During the filming of “As Goes Janesville,” Lichtenstein caught a moment that took over YouTube, national television stations and fueled a polarizing situation going on then in Wisconsin.

Via email, Lichtenstein explained, “Back in May, Wisconsin was in the midst of a recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. You remember the standoff over unions. That's in my film. In May, we released a trailer that also had a very damning moment that became part of the election and news cycle. Scott Walker admits that he was not trying to balance the budget with his collective bargaining bill, but rather trying to ‘divide and conquer’ the unions. Here is the viral clip from our trailer of Gov. Walker promising a billionaire donor that he'd divide and conquer in response to her plea to make Wisconsin a completely red state and work on ‘these unions.’ It was on Huffington Post, featured nightly on MSNBC and elsewhere, and was in practically every newspaper once the AP did a story. Crazy, and a mixed blessing for me. Complicated. Here are a couple of examples: Huffington Post and MSNBC.”

Suddenly the film became very political; and although Lichtenstein had showed the final cut to the principal characters including Mary (one of the woman in the clip), the media frenzy caused fragmentation and broken relationships despite the positive response to the private screening.

“I tried really hard to point people to the context,” said Lichtenstein who said the last thing he wanted to do was add to the polarization among parties. “The film gives us the opportunity to humanize all of the numbers and explains the human complexity and human beings behind the economic crisis we are in the middle of. The people in economic development are not fat cats, they are genuinely engaged in trying to help the economy.”

In other cities, the screening of this film has set the stage for a lively discussion.

“Different people have different reactions to the film. The moment I have loved so far, was after we had a screening in upstate New York,” said Lichtenstein. 

“Someone from the audience stood up and was part of the teachers union and said ‘People like Walker don’t give a rat’s ass about me or workers and I think Mary is someone that drank the Kool-Aid.’

“This statement was followed by a man saying, ‘I am a small business owner and I see what is wrong with unions and I honestly cannot afford it. It takes people like Scott Walker and Mary so we can push unions’,” Lichtenstein said.

He says he has seen how his film connects to anyone who is struggling to find work as well as those in secure jobs.