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TU Global: Exit Zero documentary uses compelling narrative

13 April 2014 By Jake Ulick, Columnist No Comments

Correction (4/16): One of the filmmaker’s names was spelled incorrectly. “Christine Wallace’s” last name is actually Walley.

Exit Zero is a place, a controversy and a collection of personal stories that sheds light on the effects of one larger, central story.

The rough-cut screening of the documentary “The Exit Zero Project” was part of the Martha A. Mitten Speaker’s Series on New Media and Society in the College of Liberal Arts, organized by professor Matthew Durington.

To the untrained ear, the term “deindustrialization” sounds like something two anthropologists from MIT would be excited about. However, this film serves to prove the opposite.

Christine Walley and Chris Boebel, professors at MIT and husband and wife, explore the issue of deindustrialization by means of an example that is not all that recent even though the effects of what happened are constant. Christine grew up in an industrial neighborhood on the Southeast side of Chicago where her father worked for many years like everyone else there in a steel mill that had been around since the 19th century.

The mill, Wisconsin Steel, eventually came to be owned by the company International Harvester, which exported the steel but also used it to their benefit for making tractors. Yet, among a host of different factors including cheaper steel exports from abroad, the overvaluing of the dollar and a major shift in corporate strategy toward keeping share prices high by shedding jobs and production, the companies that owned these mills started letting them go under, intentionally.

This didn’t fare well for communities like the one Christine grew up in that were based on industrial jobs, jobs that the two say served as a “springboard for the middle class” in that they didn’t require a lot of education but allowed families to still live comfortable middle-class lives.

Many spoke about a sort of creative destruction theory that was prevalent at the time in which destroying facets of an “old” economy would relinquish locked up capital and potential and thus spur new job growth. There was also an evolutionary language surrounding deindustrialization in that people were sad about losing these industrial jobs but that the new, up and coming economy based on information and technology would be better for all.

The two say one of the main motivations for creating this film was to show how both of those sentiments were inaccurate predictions of the future. The neighborhood on the southeast side of Chicago where Christine grew up still struggles.

The film highlights Wallace’s family, specifically her father, and how they dealt with the closing of the mill. But instead of having them narrate boring experts in their offices surrounded by books telling the larger story of deindustrialization, they decided to use the personal narrative to tell the larger story, which I found to be extremely effective.

Instead of illustrating the issue with generalizations and statistics, they show her father, even in old age, still trying to come to terms with what happened. Christine even reveals in the film her struggle with cancer, that could have been possibly been caused by the pollution that the mills left behind.

At one point in the film they focus on the disjunction between her and family that was brought about when she was offered a way out of the neighborhood and the chance to attend college. Aside from Exit Zero being the actual exit from the highway to get into Wallace’s neighborhood, it has different symbolic meanings. One is the fact of how the neighborhood is such a closed society which not only means that it’s difficult to break into but also difficult to break out of. The other is simply that it’s always overlooked and seen behind the shadows of the mills and factories that are still there.

At the end of the film, Christine mentions how everyone leaves traces behind that tell their own story but what shapes our understanding of it all is through the act of sharing this information. The hope of Christine and Chris in making the documentary (which came after they wrote a book on the issue) was to bring the story of the neighborhood out of the shadows, the idea being that telling one story would provoke others to share their stories.

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