Julia Reichert, Oscar-Winning ‘American Factory’ Documentarian, Dies at 76

Julia Reichert, whose 50-year career as a documentarian included a 2020 Oscar win for American Factory, has died after a battle with urothelial cancer. She was 76.

Reichert died Thursday night in her home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, surrounded by family, her partner and frequent filmmaking collaborator Steven Bognar told The Hollywood Reporter.

Despite undergoing chemotherapy ahead of her Oscar triumph, she attended the 2020 Academy Awards and walked to the stage with Bognar to accept their award. The pair later won an Emmy for American Factory.

Long regarded as a godmother of the indie film industry, the director, producer and writer also received Oscar nominations for Union Maids (1976), Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983) and The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009).

Her first film, Growing Up Female (1971), was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”  

American Factory, about a Chinese billionaire who reopens an abandoned GM plant outside Dayton, Ohio, to make car windshields, shows Chinese and American workers working together amid attempts at union-busting and installing robotic technology. 

The documentary — a follow-up to The Last Truck, which chronicled the last days of a once-thriving union shop — gained the support of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company and Netflix after it won a directing prize at the 2019 Sundance Film festival.

In a statement, Higher Ground remembered Reichert as a “true giant.”

“A trailblazing filmmaker, Julia Reichert dedicated her life to documenting socially and historically significant stories that gave voice to so many, particularly the working class and women,” the statement continued. “Collaborating with her on the Oscar-winning documentary American Factory was an honor and privilege that we will always cherish at Higher Ground. We know that Julia’s talent, humanity and commitment to mission-centric storytelling will continue to inspire current and future creators worldwide, including all of us.”

During her Oscar speech, Reichert congratulated the “tough, inventive, great people of Dayton” and said American Factory, while set in Ohio and China, had universal relevance.

“It really could be from anywhere, that people put on a uniform, punch a clock, trying to make their families have a better life,” she said. “Working people have it harder and harder these days, and we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.” 

Reichert’s films have screened at Sundance, Telluride, South by Southwest, Hot Docs and other major festivals as well as on HBO and PBS. Many offer a history of American labor and the women’s movement and a radical humanism.

“There’s a lot in Reichert’s documentaries to make you angry, as there should be given the subjects they take on, but there’s a lot of sweetness in them too,” author Barbara Ehrenreich said in a 2019 essay to introduce a retrospective of Reichert’s films.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey on June 16, 1946, to Louis and Dorothy Reichert, Julia Reichert graduated in 1964 from Bordentown Regional High School. In 1971, faced with few distribution options for films by and about women, Reichert and Jim Klein co-founded New Day Films as a documentary film distribution cooperative. It still operates today.

Asked in June 2019 in a CBC radio interview whether she wanted to become a filmmaker or change the world, Reichert quickly responded: “Oh, certainly change the world … That was definitely what was on our minds. I use ‘our’ because we really felt part of a big movement right at that time — the late ’60s into the mid-’70s and beyond.”

She said she never called herself a filmmaker until others put the label on her.

Growing Up Female, her senior student project at Antioch College, examined women’s issues through the lives of six women and the forces in society that shaped them.

“It’s not a radical movie or a militant movie. It just looks at how women see themselves and what are the social institutions that are affecting us,” Reichert said. “It’s the kind of film you want audiences who are not feminists, who are not in the women’s liberation movement, to see and think, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s me, too. That’s happened to me.’”

Reichert and Klein’s next movie was Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1974), which chronicled heroin addiction in the 1970s in Dayton, where they lived. 

Their humanist take on society also was seen in Union Maids, about three women who served as Depression-era labor organizers, and Seeing Red, about Americans who joined the Communist Party and got caught up in the 1950s Red Scare backlash. 

Reichert and Bognar’s A Lion in the House (2006), a four-hour, two-part PBS special about five families dealing with pediatric cancer, earned an Emmy for exceptional merit in nonfiction filmmaking and a Henry Hampton Award.

Their other films included Sparkle (2012), about Dayton dancer Sheri “Sparkle” Williams, and Making Morning Star (2016), centering on the making of an opera in Cincinnati; 9to5: The Story of a Movement (2020) and Determined (2020). The pair also directed an untitled documentary about Dave Chappelle’s series of comedy shows in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021.

Bognar told THR that his collaboration with Reichert usually involved a multiyear commitment to making each documentary.

On American Factory, he said, “We weren’t flying in once every month or two. We went there all the time and shot 1,200 hours of material. We became deeply familiar with the plant to the point where we could walk in, with ID badges that allowed us through any door. It was kind of like showing up for work, not that we were making windshields, but we were doing our job side by side with everyone else. By year two or three, we had been there longer than a lot of people who actually worked there.”

Reichert served as a professor of film production at Wright State University in Dayton from 1985-2016 and was the 2018 recipient of the IDA Career Achievement Award. She also authored Doing It Yourself, a 1977 book on self-distribution in independent film.

Reichert was a member of the advisory board at the Independent Feature Project after co-founding The Film Fund, a foundation that supported the making of social issue media and led to the creation of the IFP.

Reichert, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2006 and went into remission that year with that cancer never returning, was diagnosed with Stage 4 urothelial cancer in April 2018.

In addition to Bognar, Reichert is survived by her brothers, Louis, Craig and Joseph Reichert; daughter Lela Klein; nephew Jeff Reichert, who co-produced American Factory; and grandchildren Beau Kleinholt and Dorothy Kleinholt.

In January 2020, Reichert told THR that “there’s no cure” for her illness and “it could be six months, a year or more,” adding, “I’ll be real honest, [the Oscar] would be extremely meaningful after four nominations and my age and my state of life. It would be very meaningful.”

8:40 a.m. Updated with additional biographical details about Reichert.

2:40 p.m. Updated with a statement from the Obamas’ Higher Ground.

Abid Rahman and Hilary Lewis contributed to this report.

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