Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning documentary maker behind “American Factory” whose films explored themes of race, class and gender, often set in the Midwest, has died. She was 76 years old.
She died Thursday evening in Ohio of cancer, her family announced Friday through a representative. She was diagnosed with stage four urothelial cancer in April 2018.
Often called the “godmother of American independent documentaries”, Reichart has told the stories of ordinary Americans, autoworkers facing both plant closures (2009 “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” ) and foreign investors (2019’s “American Factory”), members of the American Communist Party (“Seeing Red” from 1983) to labor activists of the 1930s (“Union Maids” from 1976).
In her 50 years in film, Reichert has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and been nominated for four Oscars, including one with partner Steven Bognar for “American Factory” in 2020.
She quoted “The Communist Manifesto” in her speech, saying that “things will be better when the workers of the world unite”. She was also nominated for two Peabody Awards.
Veteran film producer Ira Deutchman wrote on Twitter that she was one of the “kindest and most generous people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”
“Her spirit was so indomitable that I thought she would eventually overcome her illness,” he added. “I will miss her so much.”
“RBG” director Julie Cohen tweeted that she was “reflecting on the life of a woman who has made a huge contribution to the documentary world. And the world in general.
Born in 1946 in Princeton, New Jersey, and raised in Bordentown and Long Beach Island with her three brothers, Reichert began finding her voice as a filmmaker at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, beginning her long residency in the ‘State.
Her first film, “Growing Up Female,” was a 49-minute student film made for $2,000 with her then-partner Jim Klein that examined the lives of six women aged 4 to 35 and their socialization.
When they couldn’t find distribution, they founded their own company, New Day Films, which is still active to this day. In 2011, “Growing Up Female” was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and is considered the first feature-length documentary of the modern women’s liberation movement.
“I came of age in the 60s. Millions of us have seen racism, seen American domination in the world. Imperialism. I saw huge inequalities in terms of class. We said the system wasn’t working and we became, in a broad sense, revolutionaries,” Reichert told radio station WYSO last year. “Not that we wanted to attack the White House but we really wanted to change society.”
She and Bognar worked for eight years to make Primetime Emmy Award-winning, 225-minute “A Lion in the House,” which focused on five families battling childhood cancer in Ohio.
“American Factory” put Reichert and Bognar in a different light when Barack and Michelle Obama became interested in their film about an auto glass factory in Ohio that had been bought by a Chinese investor. It became the first Obama-backed project with their production company Higher Ground.
“One of the many things I love about this movie…is that you let people tell their own story,” the former first lady said in 2019. “‘American Factory’ has no perspective. This is not an op-ed. I mean, you really let people speak for themselves, and that’s a powerful thing that you don’t always see happen.
More recently, Reichert and Bognar produced ‘9to5: The Story of a Movement’, about an organization that tries to improve working conditions and uphold the rights of women and families, and ‘Dave Chappelle: Living in real life,” following the comedian’s Yellow Springs. shows in 2020 during the pandemic.
Throughout her career, Reichert has made sure to pass on her wisdom to others, teaching filmmaking at Wright State University from 1985 to 2016 and writing a book on self-distribution called “Doing It Yourself.”
Reichert had been diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2006, while preparing to perform at Sundance with “A Lion in the House”, but went into remission later that year.
Urothelial cancer, she knew, was incurable. In 2020, she told NPR’s Terry Gross that now that she was coming to the end of her life, she was focusing on things she hadn’t been able to do enough while making movies, like spending time with his daughter and grandchildren.
Reichert is survived by Bognar, his daughter Lela Klein Holt and two grandchildren.
The Huffington Gt