On Saturday evening the Milwaukee Film Fest hosted the premiere of director Brad Lichtenstein’s much-discussed documentary As Goes Janesville. With contested races for U.S Senate and President of the United States in full swing and the election only a month away, the film’s importance really can’t be overstated. It humanizes people on both sides of the political divide and avoids portraying any individual or political party as a villain.
The focal point is the General Motors plant in Janesville that closed (seemingly for good) in 2008 after operating for 85 years. In a city of about 63,000 people, approximately 11,000 jobs were lost as a result of the plant’s closing. The film covers the local impact of the closing as well as the effort of the city and Rock County to overcome significant economic and image problems.
To convey the radical upheaval in people’s lives, Lichtenstein follows three women directly affected by the GM plant shutting down. Two of them work for GM and are given the option of taking a position at a plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A third was laid off from an Alcoa plant and GM supplier. She went back to school in her 40s to make a career change.
Equal attention is paid to the rigorous campaign to guide the region through the challenges posed by the job losses. A local BMO Harris Bank executive named Mary Willmer serves as a key player in the creation and launch of Rock County 5.0, a public/private economic development initiative.
What is most compelling about As Goes Janesville is the manner in which Lichtenstein demonstrates that despite all of the political battles and partisan rancor in the state, there are people on both sides of the aisle working diligently to make a positive difference in Rock County. They genuinely care about Janesville and the surrounding areas and want to see the county thrive.
Willmer, a passionate supporter of Governor Scott Walker, represents the GOP side while the Democrats are represented by State Senator Tim Cullen, a Janesville resident who serves the 15th Senate District in Wisconsin. They have different ideas about what should be done to improve the state economy and create jobs, but both seem completely dedicated to Janesville and take the work they do very seriously.
Relevant questions are also raised about the role of unions and balancing job creation with social services. One of the GM employees, who had an unblemished 24-year record with the company, is fired after missing some work because her son was severely injured in a car accident. The union gets her job back. Would that have been possible in a non-union workplace? Who will stand up for employees in a situation like that if there is no union?
As for job creation, Rock County 5.0 is attempting to provide a startup company called Shine Medical Technologies with $9 million in tax incentives so that Shine will build a new facility in the area. It is risky because of the sum of money involved and because a product might never be produced. But for a community like Janesville, don’t you need a little innovation to cultivate job growth? Don’t you need to lure promising startups like Shine, companies with the potential to attracted skilled, educated professionals and provide high-paying jobs?
Rabid partisans on the extremes of the political spectrum will surely see nothing but bias, but everyone else should find As Goes Janesville a provocative and poignant documentary that accurately depicts current economic realities as well as the mood of the state. It is not out to demonize or pick sides, and it could not be more timely.
As Goes Janesville airs on PBS beginning Monday, October 8. Check local listings or http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/as-goes-janesville/ for more information.