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Gazing Back on Julia Reichert’s Forward-Looking Career

As the Museum of Modern Art preps a new exhibition on the influential documentarian, one of her proteges reflects on her legacy.

Steven Bognar (L) and Julia Reichert (R) win the Directing Award: US Documentary for 'American Factory' at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony in Park City, Utah, USA, 02 February 2019.2019 Sundance Film Festival Awards Ceremony, Park City, USA - 02 Feb 2019

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar win the Directing Award: US Documentary for ‘American Factory’ at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

GEORGE FREY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“They made a decision to be radicals. To challenge the very fabric of their society. How that decision affected their lives is the thread of our story, and it’s by no means a simple story to tell.”

This spare but potent statement by filmmaker Julia Reichert in the narration of “Seeing Red,” her 1983 Academy Award–nominated documentary on the history of the American Communist Party, could well apply to the broader arc of the politically engaged, culturally attuned body of work that Reichert and those fortunate enough to collaborate with her over the years have created. Long before the current generation’s embrace of feminism, socialism, and radical action, Reichert tackled these subjects with rigor and compassion in her films and allowed them to resonate more deeply with viewers by humanizing, rather than weaponizing, their arguments. Her films don’t function solely as calls to action; they have shaped and challenged our very notion of what political filmmaking looks like—whether we know it or not. It is both the blessing and curse of many a great documentarian for their process and aesthetic achievements to be undervalued in favor of their passion for inspiring content. What makes Reichert’s work so continually relevant is not just its dedication to the cause but its development of a cinematic language supple enough to convey the subtle contours and emotional registers that live within it.

Perhaps part of the reason that Reichert’s techniques and choices as a director are not always foregrounded is because they are designed to recede, allowing a subject’s face or tone of voice to be the anchor of a film, and to enable those overlooked or misunderstood by society—Reagan-era Communists dreaming of a more equitable future, working-class women rejected by a privilege-driven application of feminism who nonetheless know they deserve more, auto workers who see not just commerce but art in the result of their labor—to publicly, cinematically reclaim their power and value.

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This does not mean that Reichert’s camera simply sits rudderless. Each frame of her films is considered; many are painterly—and this is not always the case in documentary practice. In her films, there is a nuanced sense of purpose in the camera’s motion. For example, there is the moment in “Union Maids,” her 1976 film on working-class women labor organizers from the 1930s, when the camera is tightly focused on one face, leading us to believe we are engaging with a single interview subject. But soon the camera zooms out to reveal that this face is part of a group, which then breaks into spirited conversation. It is a clever but pointed visual indication of the idea that joining the movement meant no longer standing alone.

When ancillary filmic material is woven into her interviews, it serves to enhance rather than distract from the vital human drama. There is a sequence in “Seeing Red,” for example, when we are taken on a lengthy journey through archival photographs depicting union gatherings from a bygone era, and then allowed to linger on one particular face. This man then suddenly appears on camera in the present, decades after the photo that introduced him in the film was taken. It is an artful transition that offers the viewer time to absorb the trace of history, and also reminds us that every single face we’ve seen reflects as rich and important a life as the one on which she chose to focus. Although the content and style of Reichert’s interviews are striking, she has experimented with many kinds of material. Her early works tend to employ a broad spectrum of archival material (“Growing up Female” [1971] is a particular treat, with its wry use of period advertisements that casually obliterates the annoyingly persistent notion that feminist equals killjoy). More recent work, such as “A Lion in the House” (2006) and “The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant” (2009), shows a shift to an increased use of verité footage, the latter film featuring the harsh but stunning Midwestern landscapes that have shaped the lives of its Ohio-proud filmmakers as much as it does their subjects.

Surely, part of the lapse in discussion of technique when it comes to Reichert’s work is also due to the fact that she knows what “growing up female” is all about. Reichert is held in reverent esteem within the documentary community—not just for her films but for bringing the same boundless energy, joyous rabble rousing, and belief in the power of organizing they contain to many of our most treasured gatherings and institutions, from informal but heated post-screening discussions to her instrumental involvement in the development of Public Television as a home for nonfiction work, and to the creation of the Independent Feature Project and long-running distribution outfit New Day Films. Yet despite the fact that Reichert has presented some of the most skilled and distinctive interviews in our field, in which her subjects exhibit not only complete trust but also seem to find a new kind of validation of their thoughts and feelings in their interactions with the filmmaker, her name is not mentioned with the likes of Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, as it should be.

I had the bracing pleasure of meeting Julia on an annual Reichert family vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan ten years ago. She asked me a series of rather personal questions at a dinner table full of accomplished strangers, but did so with such frankness and sincerity that it was several minutes before I became aware that I was answering each of her questions, one by one, without hesitation, even sharing my then-hidden yearning to make films myself. During the entire exchange, she didn’t take her eyes off me for a second, and I was dazzled. I remember thinking: this, THIS is what I want to do; to listen to people, to hear them, to know them, to share with them, and for them to feel good about what had taken place between us. It is a profound thing to feel seen and heard—whether across a dining-room table or across the often intimidating space between a filmmaker and her subject.

Julia was in the room when I conducted my very first onscreen interview for my debut film, “Remote Area Medical.” She is the gold standard by which I consider whether I have had the openness, compassion, and courage to inspire the same kind of unburdening that she does from someone sitting across from me, telling me, the camera, and therefore the world about their innermost life. Her work evinces a keen understanding of the inherent risk that attends any interview subject who sits down with a filmmaker to share their story.

Consider, for example, what it took for the subjects of “Seeing Red” to out themselves as Communists during the punitive Reagan era. One subject of the film says, with feeling, “I felt that I owe it to everybody who knows me to know who I was, and who I am, and why I’m doing what I’m doing.” It speaks volumes that that this subject chose to leave that record of her true self in the hands of Julia Reichert. While this ability to connect with people may spring from an innate and uncanny gift, it also has been honed by Reichert over a lifetime of love and labor, and has developed into a practice of true creative and political intention.

There is a kind of apotheosis to be found in Reichert’s most recent film, “American Factory,” which won Reichert and her co-director, Steven Bognar, the Directing Award for a U.S. Documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The film dives into the social and economic realities of working-class people in a new Chinese-owned factory in Dayton, Ohio, yet somehow comes, inexplicably, to contain the whole world. Reichert began by looking as close to her own backyard as possible (the titular factory being a twenty-five-minute drive from her home in Ohio), but being true to herself and the stories and themes that drive her led her across the globe to China. The result has been her most epic, sweeping work yet.

Like Reichert’s energy to tackle the great and unspoken injustices of the world, these films, their ideas, and their preoccupations have not aged. Even as we feel the promise of the American Dream slipping nearly out of reach, an examination of our collective successes and failures in supporting non-male, working-class Americans is vital to our understanding of how we might begin to proceed, how we might achieve a utopia like the one the subjects of “Seeing Red” dreamed of, or perhaps the global worker consciousness suggested by the closing shots of “American Factory.” To say Reichert’s films are still relevant is not enough; it is more accurate, perhaps, to say finally that, collectively, nigh on fifty years into her career, their time has come.

MoMA’s film series, Julia Reichert: 50 Years, runs through June 8 in New York City. It was organized with the Wexner Center for the Arts. The retrospective runs October 2 – 30 at the Wexner Center to be followed by stops at other museums around the country. More information can be found here.

Farihah Zaman is a documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, “To Be Queen,” premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

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