By Ruth Conniff
By now, many Americans have heard of Janesville, Wisconsin, thanks to Mitt Romney's VP pick, Congressman Paul Ryan, who hails from the small city. Ryan often touts his small town roots on the campaign trail.
But one filmmaker brings us a far more complex portrait of this rust belt town of 60,000 in south-central Wisconsin. Brad Lichtenstein directed As Goes Janesville, which premiered on PBS this week and is making the rounds of film festivals nationwide.
"I decided to make a film about Janesville because when the economy started to collapse back in 2008, I was looking for a way to tell a story that would not be a story just about the collapse of the economy but more about how people put their lives back together on a personal level, and how a community tried to reinvent its local economy," Lichtenstein told me in an interview on WORT-FM.
"And I wanted to tell it from a lot of different perspectives," he said. "When I realized that right down the road about an hour and fifteen minutes from my home in Milwaukee, the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, was closing, I thought this would be a really great way to tell this story."
Lichtenstein has a personal connection to Paul Ryan's hometown. "My wife is from Janesville," he said. "On a trivia note, Paul Ryan's father and my father-in-law were law partners in Janesville. So there's a lot of connections for me."
As Goes Janesville became news before it was even released. The filmmaker captured Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker telling his largest campaign donor, Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, about his plan to "divide and conquer" the state's labor unions. Walker told this to Hendricks four weeks before he unveiled his budget that undid collective bargaining for state workers. Lichtenstein included the clip on a trailer he posted online in May and it went viral.
The film recounts the lives of four Janesville residents struggling in the aftermath of the GM plant closing in December 2008. The GM plant was the auto company's oldest in the United States when it closed, and it employed thousands of workers. It was known for having hard-working employees that could churn out 500,000 vehicles a year.
Lichtenstein follows two working mothers, Gayle Listenbee and Cindy Deegan, who got laid off from the auto industry. Then there's another working mom, Mary Wilmer, of HBO bank, who's trying to stop the foreclosures and get businesses to come to town. The last person profiled in state senator Tim Cullen.
There's footage of Deegan going to a job fair where there are very few jobs. And there is an amazing scene of Listenbee looking for a job at the Rock Count Job Center, where she finds out that most manufacturing jobs pay only around $9 an hour. She says she'd need three or four fulltime jobs to make what she did before.
Then there's scene of a business group, called Rock County 5.0. These business leaders, including Wilmer, are out to rebrand Janesville, and call themselves the "ambassadors of optimism." Some of the folks are vehemently anti-union, others not so much. But one person says the growing unemployment may be a good thing because people can get paid less.
Wilmer is very well-intentioned, trying to lure businesses to Janesville. Yet the business leaders seem to be so out of touch with the everyday lives of laid-off workers such as Deegan and Listenbee.
"It was a little surreal to bounce between the homes of laid off workers and the boardrooms of Rock County 5.0," Lichtenstein told me. Ultimately, what he tries to show in his film is "the nitty gritty of what makes reinventing our economy so hard to do," he said. "One of the most vexing parts of that is trying to not just bring jobs to a community, but jobs that can support a family, and to preserve our middle class. And that is a really herculean task."
If you liked this story by Elizabeth DiNovella, the Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine, check out her story "Dark Money's Dark Role in Wisconsin Races."
Follow Elizabeth DiNovella @lizdinovella on Twitter.