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Documentary examines effects of income inequality

By Jaye Han

Section: News

April 4, 2014

This Monday evening in the International Business School, the work-in-progress documentary “Exit Zero” was screened. The event was followed by a brief Q&A with the filmmaker, Christine Walley. This event was sponsored by the Edie and Lew Wasserman Fund, the Film, Television and Interactive Media program and the Department of Anthropology.

“Exit Zero” is produced and written by Christine Walley and her husband Chris Boebel, who directed and edited the documentary. In first-person narrative by Walley, the documentary explores the experiences of the Southeast Chicago’s steel mill community during “deindustrialization.”

Southeast Chicago used to be one of the largest steel-producing regions, Walley said. Before the closure of the steel mills, the mills employed hundreds of thousands of people. However, in the 1980s the mills began to close. The area was left with a crumbling economy and a toxic environment. “Exit Zero” seeks to recapture the stories of the people in this region.

As an anthropologist, Christine Walley examines the experience that turned her and her family’s lives upside down. She interweaves her home movies, found footage, first-person narrative and stories of multiple generations of her family and neighbors to put together a story of people impacted by the steel mill closures. In addition, she researched various past newspapers and local museums to learn beyond the personal experiences for this documentary.

Walley’s father used to work in the Wisconsin steel mill. The plan for him was to work in the mill for 40 years and receive pension just like his father and grandfather, who also worked in the steel mills. However, one day the mill suddenly closed, and his plans were shattered, Walley says.

Her father was one of the thousands of employees who experienced this sudden closure. Footage in Walley’s documentary reveals that her father was one of the lucky ones—he watched his fellow employees have their families torn apart as they developed alcohol problems, and even committed suicide.

The director explores the experiences in this steel mill town before and after the closures by exploring the stories of both her father and her great grandfather. Her great-grandfather immigrated from Sweden and worked in the mills. Although he never talked much, Walley later discovered a 40-page manuscript in which he wrote out his thoughts and experiences, which added great value to the documentary.

The documentary “Exit Zero” is accompanied by a book, “Exit-Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago,” and an interactive website that collaborated with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, the MIT Open documentary Lab and Legwork Studio. Overall, Walley sought to expand and deepen the storytelling experience in the film through multiple media.

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