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Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

March 6, 2023 | 691 words | Movies, Economics, Philosophy

When Julia Reichert died a few months ago at the age of 76, she was eulogized as a “Documentarian of the Working Class.”  I knew of her only through the 2019 Academy award-winning “American Factory,” about the Chinese take-over of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, which she directed with her second husband, Steven Bognar.

By reading her obituary I learned about Ms. Reichert’s extensive career, as both a filmmaker and educator.  A longtime professor of motion pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ms. Reichert “was in the forefront of a new generation of social documentarians who came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission.”

“Although Ms. Reichert addressed a variety of social issues in the documentaries she directed and produced, her enduring interests were labor history and the lives of working women.”

Reichert’s resume as a filmmaker starts in 1971.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio she made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” with a male classmate by the name of James Klein, who became a frequent collaborator and her first husband.  In 2011 “Growing Up Female” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  

Other stellar early works completed with Mr. Klein include “Union Maids” (1976), and “Seeing Red” (1983).  The critic Vincent Canby considered the latter “a fine, tough companion piece to ‘Union Maids.’”  Rather than trading in dogma, he told us, her subject was “American Idealism.”  

A few years ago the writer Barbara Ehrenreich (who herself died this past September) recalled how Ms. Reichert “defied every stereotype I’d had of independent filmmakers…  She wasn’t rich, and she wasn’t arrogant or egotistical.  The daughter of a butcher and a house cleaner turned registered nurse, she dressed and spoke plainly, usually beaming with enthusiasm, and never abandoned her Midwestern roots.”

It is her enthusiasm that really comes across in the interview she and Mr. Bognar did with Barack and Michelle Obama about the making of “American Factory.”  (Netflix released the film in conjunction with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.)  This interview is packaged as a companion piece to the film, both of which are available for streaming.

What makes “American Factory” so engaging is the way it is “suffused in ambivalence.”  The New York Times called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present, and possible future of American labor.”  It centers on a Chinese billionaire who purchases a shuttered GM truck factory, and re-opens it as an automobile glass factory.  He is welcomed by the Ohio community as a hero who promises to restore lost jobs, only to become a villain by “confounding American workers with a new set of attitudes.”  And by chopping their previous wage and benefit package by more than half. 

Surprisingly that billionaire, Cao Dewang, is not portrayed as a one-dimensional scoundrel straight out of central casting, as one might expect from a Documentarian of the Working Class.  In many ways he is actually the film’s protagonist.

Though everybody in this documentary eventually gets their say.  We hear from union people, anti-union people, and an array of workers.  Both the native Americans and the exuberant Chinese who are brought in to show the sometimes-recalcitrant locals how to be more efficient and productive.

“Hearing from” is an accurate description of how this and Reichert’s other films typically unfold.  She avoids voice-over narration in favor of interviews with her mostly rank-and-file subjects who are allowed to speak for themselves on camera.  This lets us make up our own minds about what we are watching.

The obituary closes by describing Julia Reichert as a committed artist who was more interested in people than in ideology.  She “wore her politics so lightly that almost no one seemed to notice when she concluded her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘American Factory’ by cheerfully citing the best-known phrase from Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’”

“We believe that things will get better,” she said, “when the workers of the world unite.”  And so do I.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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