Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning co-director of “American Factory” and a longtime fixture of American documentary since the 1970s, has died at 76 after battling cancer.
A champion of women’s rights and the working class whose films were ahead of their time in their intersectional exploration of class, gender, and race in America, Reichert was also a trailblazing leader and passionate advocate for the documentary community.
Born in New Jersey to a working-class family, Reichert started as a social activist and never intended to be a documentary filmmaker. “That was a job overwhelmingly for the wealthy,” said Jim Klein, Reichert’s partner from the 1960s to the 1980s and co-director of her early films. “We were social activists rather than filmmakers, doing it by the seat of our pants.”
Their first film, “Growing Up Female,” was completed 50 years ago with a budget of $2,000. It was one of the first documentaries chronicling the modern women’s movement. In 1971, Reichert used the film as an organizing tool, traveling around the country and screening it for small groups one city at a time. Frustrated with the lack of distribution options for films by and about women, Reichert and Klein co-founded New Day Films, a documentary film distribution cooperative.
“Julia was at heart an organizer,” said Gordon Quinn, founder and artistic director of Kartemquin Films and an occasional Reichert collaborator. “She was tremendously important in that role, fighting numerous battles with the gatekeepers.” Along with Quinn and others, Reichert was one of the founding members of the Indie Caucus, an action group that worked to keep independent documentaries on PBS. “She had a real commitment to the democratic process,” said Quinn. “I would say, ‘We should do it,’ and she would say, ‘We have to convene the committee and vote on this.’”
Reichert extended her faith in progressive political ideals to her films. The subjects of her work ranged from activist women, seen in the 1976 Oscar-nominated “Union Maids” co-directed with Klein and last year’s “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” co-directed with Steve Bognar, to members of the American Community party (the Oscar-nominated “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists,” also with Klein) and the autoworkers of the Oscar-nominated films “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” and “American Factory,” both co-directed with Steve Bognar. Reichert, after all, ended her Oscar acceptance speech for “American Factory” by declaring: “Things will get better when workers of the world unite.”
In a local Dayton newspaper, Steve Bognar recently described all of Reichert’s films as having the same “through-line,” which he said “asks the question of ‘What makes a fair and just world?’ Especially for people who don’t have power, but who want to want a fair shake and want to have a decent life.”
Reichert maintained the same democratic approach to her process as a director. “We don’t just interview people once,” Reichert told The American Prospect last year. “We developed the relationships with people from ‘American Factory’ and ‘Last Truck’ over months. We would stop in at people’s houses… We would bring people a cup of coffee in the morning and sit down and talk. Time, time, time, investment in time, and people realize you actually care about them … not just the story.”
In the program notes to the Wexner Center for the Arts’s Reichert retrospective in 2019, director of Film/Video and curator Dave Filipi recalled an emblematic anecdote: After a Wexner screening of “The Last Truck,” Reichert and Bognar invited several autoworkers featured in the film who lost their jobs out to dinner, and, as Filipi wrote, “I began to fully appreciate the relationships and friendships that Julia and Steve had formed with these people. The mutual respect, understanding, and compassion between filmmakers and subjects was palpable, and one could only feel honored to be a part of the occasion.”
Melissa Godoy, who worked as a line producer on “A Lion in the House,” “The Last Truck,” “American Factory,” and “9to5,” said Julia and Steve respected their collaborators and crew in the same way. “They value our lives, time and families, give credit, include us — even the little guys — in everything, and offer opportunities to grow as artists,” she said. “So for a woman who makes films about labor and women, Julia walk[ed] the walk.”
For 28 years, Reichert was also a professor of film production at Dayton, Ohio’s Wright State University, where she mentored dozens of emerging filmmakers from around the country. “She inspired me in so many ways,” said Northwestern journalism professor Brent Huffman, director of “Saving Mes Aynak” and producer of “Finding Yingying.” “Julia used to have doc movie nights at her house and cooked us dinner. It wasn’t really a class; it was so much more. She taught me to be brave and never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Based in the rural Ohio town of Yellow Springs, an oasis of leftist ideals and home to Antioch College, where Reichert and Klein first met as students, Reichert worked on many of her projects nearby. “They taught us that some of the best stories you can find in your own backyard,” said Godoy. “The Last Truck” and “American Factory” chronicled events taking place around Dayton, Ohio, while “A Lion in the House,” their Emmy-winning four-hour verité epic, followed five Cincinnati, Ohio-area families and their caregivers grappling with childhood cancer.
“A Lion in the House” hit especially close to home, as Reichert’s own daughter, with Klein, had just completed treatment for Hodgkin’s disease at 18 when they started the project. It took eight years to complete the film, and just as it was about to premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Reichert herself learned after landing in Park City that she was diagnosed with a late-stage lymphoma. After successful rounds of chemotherapy, Reichert was eventually cancer free. But in 2018, she was diagnosed with urothelial cancer and had been in and out of treatments since then—including the run-up to the 2020 Academy Awards—where she took a brief break to win the Oscar.
Reichert will be fondly remembered as an intrepid and courageous fighter for her colleagues and liberal causes — from women’s and worker’s rights to, more recently, Black Lives Matter, as shown in her final film with Bognar, “Dave Chappelle: Live in Real Life” — as well as a tenacious filmmaker adept at capturing moments of extraordinary intimacy in concert with complex social-political issues.
But over the last year, in interviews, Reichert spoke with a sense of joy and hopefulness in being able to take a break from filmmaking. “Now that I’m coming toward the end of my life, it makes me want to focus on the things I didn’t get to do,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross in early 2020, such as cooking with her daughter or taking walks with her grandchildren. “Because all the films over 50 years, they exist.”