Julia Reichert, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, dead at 76

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Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker behind “American Factory,” whose films explored issues of race, class and gender, often in the Midwest, has died. She was 76.

She died of cancer Thursday night in Ohio, her family announced through a representative on Friday. In April 2018, she was diagnosed with stage four urothelial cancer.

Often referred to as the “godmother of American independent documentaries,” Reichart told the stories of ordinary Americans, auto workers grappling with both plant closures (2009’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant) and foreign investors (2019’s American Factory ’), via members of the American Communist Party (1983 ‘Seeing Red’) to women workers in the 1930s (1976 ‘Union Maids’).

Julia Reichert, left, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, has died at the age of 76.

In her 50 years as a filmmaker, Reichert has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and been nominated for four Academy Awards, including one with her partner Steven Bognar for American Factory in 2020.

She quoted The Communist Manifesto in her speech and said, “Things get 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, most generous people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

“Her spirit was so indomitable that I thought she would eventually triumph over 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 tremendous contribution to the documentary world. And the world in general.”

Reichert was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1946 and grew up with her three brothers in Bordentown and Long Beach Island. She began finding her voice as a filmmaker at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she began her long-term residency in the state.

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Her first film, Growing Up Female, was a 49-minute student film made with her then-partner Jim Klein for $2,000 about the lives and socialization of six women, ages 4 to 35.

When they couldn’t find a distributor, they started their own company, New Day Films, which is still active today. In 2011, Growing Up Female was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is considered the first full-length documentary of the modern women’s liberation movement.

“I grew up in the ’60s. Millions of us saw racism, saw US domination around the world. Imperialism. Saw major inequalities in terms of class. We said the system didn’t work, and we became revolutionaries in the broadest sense,” Reichert told WYSO radio last year. “Not that we wanted to attack the White House, but we really wanted to change society.”

She and Bognar spent eight years collaborating on the 225-minute, Primetime Emmy Award-winning “A Lion in the House,” about five families struggling with childhood cancer in Ohio.

“American Factory” put Reichert and Bognar in a different spotlight when Barack and Michelle Obama became interested in their film about an Ohio auto glass factory that had been bought by a Chinese investor. It was the first project the Obamas backed with their production company, Higher Ground.

“One of the many things I love about this film … is that you let people tell their own stories,” the former first lady said in 2019. “‘American Factory’ has no perspective. It’s not an editorial. I mean you really let people speak for themselves and that’s a strong thing that you don’t always see.”

More recently, Reichert and Bognar directed 9to5: The Story of a Movement, about an organization trying to improve working conditions and uphold the rights of women and families, and Dave Chappelle: Live in Real Life Comedian Shows Yellow Springs in 2020 during the pandemic.

Throughout her career, Reichert has shared her knowledge with others, teaching film at Wright State University from 1985 to 2016 and writing a book on self-promotion called Doing It Yourself.

Reichert was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2006 while preparing to go to Sundance with “A Lion in the House,” but went into remission later that year.

She knew that urothelial cancer was incurable. In 2020, she told NPR’s Terry Gross that now that she was nearing the end of her life, she was focusing on things she couldn’t do enough in filmmaking, like spending time with her daughter and grandchildren.

Reichert is survived by Bognar, her daughter Lela Klein Holt, and two grandchildren.

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