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CIFF: As Goes Janesville

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 9, 2012 7:20PM

2012_10_09_janesville.jpg This is part of Chicagoist's coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival.

The fortunes of Brad Lichtenstein’s new documentary As Goes Janesville surely got a lift when the impetus behind it, GM’s closing in 2008 of its 90-year-old Janesville, Wisc. assembly plant, became a bit of a political football in the presidential silly season a few months ago. Yet it was not a news cycle, but the three patient years spent capturing the a representative American community whose lifeblood, employment opportunities that allow middle class families to thrive, was sucked out of it that makes this new film, a co-production of Kartemquin, Milwaukee’s 371 Productions and the Independent Television Service, relevant.

In a surprisingly riveting sixty minutes, the fates of four lives upended by the plant closure are sympathetically portrayed. Two former GM plant employees must disrupt their family to accept a forced transfer to a different GM Plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana or face a job market with no jobs. One former employee of a GM supplier starts down the strenuous path to a new career in a federally funding retraining program. And a local bank president organizes business owners into a coalition of “ambassadors of optimism” to get potential companies to locate in the area.

These individual struggles give a personal stake to the political events swirling in the background as they unfold: the financial crisis, the highly-charged mid-term elections of 2010, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights, the flight of Democratic Wisconsin state senators to Illinois to slow that process, and Walker’s recall election. With the workers paralyzed by a lack of opportunities and their leaders only prescription apparently to hand money to relocating companies while enticing them with the low wages the supply of unemployed workers will settle for, the picture is a grim one.

When staring at a potential cancer diagnosis while on unemployment or dealing with a family tragedy when you work four hours away from home, the platitudes and soundbites of politicians and talking heads seem very far away. In this narrative, the political gridlock and seeming lack of leadership become the villains.

Political polarization is at its most deflating in the scenes of Tim Cullen, a Democratic state senator from Janesville whose pragmatism and purported willingness to work with the opposition is met by indifference from the Senate Republicans who refuse any cooperation. “I’m learning that it’s a different Wisconsin,” Cullen says. We see the flip side as well, as when a liberal activist accuses him of betrayal just for trying to respectfully quiet protesters so that the Governor could speak.

The people in As Goes Janesville are people that you will recognize. The plight they find themselves truly is palpably the most intractable we face. As Republican nominee Vice President and fifth-generation Janesvillian Paul Ryan says, the town is a “perfect proxy story of what our country could become.” And though Ryan appears only in the outtakes of the film (smartly collected on the film’s website), watching As Goes Janesville is great homework for voters who need a reminder of what is at stake at the polls.

As Goes Janesville will have its local premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 13 at 2:30 p.m. ($14/$11 discount). Director Brad Lichtenstein and Producer Nicole Docta scheduled to attend.