Issues

Julia Reichert and the Work of Telling Working-Class Stories

Patricia Aufderheide

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2019, Volume 73, Number 2

It was the Year of Julia: in 2019 documentarian Julia Reichert received lifetime-achievement awards at the Full Frame and HotDocs festivals, was given the inaugural “Empowering Truth” award from Kartemquin Films, and saw a retrospective of her work presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The International Documentary Association had already given her its 2018 award.) Meanwhile, her newest work, American Factory (2019)—made, as have been all her films in the last two decades, with Steven Bognar—is being championed for an Academy Award nomination, which would be Reichert’s fourth, and has been picked up by the Obamas’ new Higher Ground company. A lifelong socialist-feminist and self-styled “humanist Marxist” who pioneered independent social-issue films featuring women, Reichert was also in 2019 finishing another film, tentatively titled 9to5: The Story of a Movement, about the history of the movement for working women’s rights.

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Julia Reichert in 2019. Photo by Eryn Montgomery.

Yet Julia Reichert is an underrecognized figure in the contemporary documentary landscape. All of Reichert’s films are rooted in Dayton, Ohio. Though periodically recognized by the bicoastal documentary film world, she has never been a part of it, much like her Chicago-based fellow midwesterners: Kartemquin Films (Gordon Quinn, Steve James, Maria Finitzo, Bill Siegel, and others) and Yvonne Welbon.

Nor has her work been a focus of very much documentary scholarship. Early in her career, Reichert is mentioned in passing as a rising woman filmmaker making oral histories of past (often defeated) political struggles—a category to which she is often consigned in the critical literature—when she appears at all, as she does in the 1993 edition of Erik Barnouw’s Documentary.1 Her early work (only) is referenced but not analyzed in Jonathan Kahana’s The Documentary Film Reader, and none of her work is cited in Brian Winston’s The Documentary Film Book.2 She is absent entirely from Gary Crowdus’s A Political Companion to American Film.3

While her earliest films are mentioned in many texts as part of a movement, her career as a whole has been largely ignored by scholars of left-wing filmmaking such as Thomas Waugh, Patricia Zimmerman, and Michael Chanan. There are interviews with Reichert from the early phase of her career in scholarly publications, but not analyses of the work itself, and the later years are fairly universally ignored.4 A rare exception, for her early work, was Jump Cut, an independent scholarly journal based (significantly) in Chicago and whose audience includes “radicals interested in culture,” as its masthead has always proudly declared.

Julia Reichert’s career and aesthetic decisions can be best understood through an approach that looks at her cultural and production contexts, examining how her films intersected with their political times, her own life trajectory, and the commercial realities of the filmmaking marketplace.5

Ordinary Lives, Working Realities

Reichert’s body of work is characterized by consistent themes across fifty years of nonstop production. They are films about the lives of ordinary working people in America, often women, usually set in the Midwest. The films are grounded in deep research and driven by a commitment to social justice. They methodically explore a situation or issue, with close, respectful observation and interviews that are always conducted by Reichert herself. These films were often designed within a context of social movements and intended to have demonstrable effects in the world.

The films have evolved stylistically with her increased mastery of her craft and the contributions of her filmmaking partners, Jim Klein and Steven Bognar. Her career has been marked by constant learning by doing, starting with a film completed with only rudimentary training and advancing in sophistication to include projects that incorporate an interactive documentary (Reinvention Stories, 2013–14) and impact modules (A Lion in the House, 2006).6 Throughout, the tone has been consistent: unpretentious, earnest, elegant but clear. Although Reichert came of age when cinéma vérité was dogma and interviews were unfashionable, she opted early for a social-inquiry approach.7 Only later, with more affordable technology, did she begin to use more cinéma vérité approaches. The dignity of her films’ working-class characters and the struggles they confront in achieving that dignity are always in the front of the frame.

Reichert has also made history as a creator of film institutions. From the start, she understood her work as building alternative institutions. She was a cofounder (with Klein) of New Day Films, originally created to distribute her first film, Growing Up Female (1971), as well as the work of young filmmakers Liane Brandon and Amalie Rothschild, and Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill shortly thereafter.8 New Day was a pioneer among independent distributors for incorporating outreach strategies into distribution long before there was a field of “impact producers,” and one of the first to educate its own consumers—academics and organizers—on how to leverage their institutions’ resources to rent and buy New Day films. Drawing on this experience, and as part of her organizing work, Reichert also wrote what might be the first how-to book on independent self-distribution and outreach.9 New Day became a thriving collective that continues to be a major distributor for independent filmmakers.

Reichert also participated in creating The Film Fund, a foundation established to channel money from trust-fund kids to social-issue filmmakers, and was part of the ten-year struggle by documentary filmmakers in 1978–88 to create public television’s producing wing, the Independent Television Service (ITVS).10 She has remained an activist in support of documentary film on public television, including the period 2013–15, when the documentary series Independent Lens and POV were threatened with removal from the core PBS schedule.

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Early days: Julia Reichert and Jim Klein.

With Klein, she built a film program at Wright State University in Dayton to teach first-generation students how to make films. In conjunction with Dayton’s municipal government, she launched an apprentice system that trained many Ohioans for careers in film and television. The project started with fiction feature films she produced and/or directed while teaching at Wright State, and has created a pipeline of work and enabled film productions to come to Southwest Ohio for locations and lower costs.

Reichert has always had at least one codirector throughout her career, but her collaborators agree that she is the driving force, identifying the subject and story of the film. Between 1971 and 1984, she made films as a team with partner Jim Klein, whom she met, fittingly, in a film class at Antioch College. Reichert came from a working-class family and Klein from an upper-middle-class one, but they shared a burning commitment to social justice. Klein recalled: “It was always an all-out partnership—everything from interview questions to how we covered things. The big thing we had together was this sense of social commitment and being part of a large social movement. It made you believe you could do things beyond what you thought you could do.”

Their relationship broke up in the wake of the release of Seeing Red (1983), although in 1985 they took a shared professorial job to start the Wright State film program. This was also a moment when Reichert decided to go on her own, to experiment with fiction film (Emma and Elvis, 1992), and to become a producer for other documentaries and fiction films. Indeed, it was in this producer role, Steven Bognar noted, that she became known as the “godmother of the indie film movement.”11 Klein also developed a thriving independent solo career, including as a sought-after editor.

It was also in this period that she met Bognar, a visual artist and Ohio native, at a screening of Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983). Over the next few years, and in spite of the fact that Steven was almost a generation younger, they became life partners—but not filmmaking partners until 1997, when they began work on A Lion in the House. Bognar describes their partnership as one of equals. He is likely to do most of the cinematography, although Reichert also shoots, but they share in the decisions. In the editing room, they may disagree, but he acknowledges that “her story instincts are so much better than mine, I can be persuaded.”

Bognar has brought a strong cinematic vision to the work but still adheres to the visual legacy of the politicized era in which Reichert launched her career—an era marked by documentary triumphs such as Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) and The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984). Bognar and Reichert’s films are strongly character-driven narratives within a social context, as Bognar noted: “We’re not under the illusion that movies can change the world, but they can help people and movements change the world by creating moments of intimacy with people you might never meet otherwise.” And although their films are now produced with highly commercial entities, as Reichert points out, they still have a distinctively independent character: “Despite notes from HBO, Participant, or Higher Ground, our films do not ever have one main character, or even the usual three.12 We listen to a chorus of voices, go for real diversity. And we’ve never made a celebrity film.”

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Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, at work in A Lion in the House. Photo by Scott Saunders.

The MoMA retrospective, organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts and years in the making, grew out of a joint commitment by Klein and Bognar to celebrate Reichert’s career. Both of them profess great satisfaction in the attention she is getting, while confident in their own essential roles in her filmmaking trajectory. “I’m so happy she’s finally getting a day in the sun,” Bognar said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact we made these films, or that Jim and she made the early films together. All these films have been true collaborations in every sense.”

Both men agree that her tenacity, even obsession, is a key asset that Reichert brings to collaborations. Bognar said, “We’ve done absurd things, where we camp out in front of someone’s house for hours, with home-baked cookies, hoping to spend five minutes with someone. I can’t imagine doing that with anyone but Julia.” Klein added, “Julia always had the willingness to go out on the end of the limb and do whatever needed to be done.”

The Reichert and Klein Years

Reichert and Klein began making films as college students, and then as ardent members of the left-wing New American Movement (NAM). They saw themselves and their films as just one part of building a new world, within a passionately dedicated community (including their communal household). Their films got incrementally more complex as they learned. Klein recalled: “After the first film, we were always riding a tiger. One of our strongest talents was our stubbornness. We were not willing to give up.”

This was a time when public television still welcomed one-off documentary productions. Their productions took years to make and eventually, upon nearing completion, could count on finding a home on PBS. It was also a time when independents paid little or no attention to copyright issues, which lowered costs. Their films wove popular music into soundtracks. They never even thought of licensing it, nor did they suffer any consequences. Those were the days before digital distribution and large media companies’ increased vigilance and intimidation, leading to indies adding huge budgets for copyright clearances. (Since filmmakers adopted a best-practices code clarifying their access to copyright law’s fair use doctrine in 2005, which led to greater access to material and lower costs, their confidence in copyright law has been restored.13) “I’m not sure we even knew about licensing music,” Reichert said. Educational distribution could still fully repay investment in production, because of the ample budgets of Cold War–era universities, especially public universities, and the still-high rental and sales prices for 16mm film in the era before VHS, DVD, and streaming.

Their work was part of a documentary trend in the 1970s–1980s that pioneered feminist, left-wing, oral-history documentary. Julia Lesage found this approach a compelling parallel to consciousness-raising itself: a challenge to women’s representation under patriarchy, an assertion of the value of women’s personal experience as political, and an illustration of a nonhierarchical relationship between maker and interviewee.14 Other scholars critiqued this mode, pointing to the lack of perspective in using interviewees, who may have been exceptions rather than typical, as the sole interpreters and representatives of history.15 Bill Nichols cited Reichert’s films (among others) as exemplifying the limitations of this kind of historical documentary, which can “forfeit an independent explanatory frame for the one provided by participant-witnesses themselves,” with implications for historical understanding.16 B. Ruby Rich described it acerbically as “soothsayer cinema,” in which the filmmaker captures the emotional commitment of the viewer with attractive and engaging characters rather than situating them in a historicopolitical context; she also argued, with Nichols, that the approach transferred authority from the filmmaker to the speaker.17 Mainstream critics sometimes used this argument against the early work. For instance, Janet Maslin wrote about Seeing Red: “[The filmmakers’] rapport with their subjects is far more impressive than their ability to analyze or organize the information they have obtained.”18 This critique did not, however, affect reception (which is what mattered to Reichert and Klein); both recalled that socialist-feminist activists in particular found the films energizing and inspiring.

Growing Up Female seems charmingly understated now, but caused explosive reactions, mostly from men, in 1971. In fifty minutes, and with only the sparest of narration, the film combines interviews and verité footage to provide a composite portrait of expectations for women’s lives. It opens with little schoolchildren in sex-segregated play, and moves from tween tomboy exuberance (mom disapproves) to young womanhood to a meditative interview with a stay-at-home mom who quietly muses on the opportunities she gave up to get married and have a family.

The film grew out of Reichert’s dorm experience at Antioch, where she first heard about something called “women’s liberation.” Although her then-boyfriend shook her by the shoulders in a rage for even using the term, Reichert and others persisted and set up a consciousness-raising group. Typical for the time, this simple act of sharing their experiences instigated an understanding of systemic oppression, which in turn led to her capstone project for graduation, Growing Up Female. With Klein, Reichert had filmed over spring break; all the interviewees appeared in the film, and their shooting ratio was painfully parsimonious, at two to one. They recruited their cinematographer sight unseen from a nearby university that had a camera. (He refused to take direction from Reichert, and would listen only to Klein.) Describing it now as “a step-one film,” Reichert sees it as much simpler than her later work: “It doesn’t offer revolution, or women’s liberation. It just lets you walk through your own life and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I felt.’ It’s like a click, click, click, then snap.”

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The poster for Growing Up Female.

The film was in hot demand from the moment they began distribution through New Day Films. It tracked the beginning of the women’s movement uncannily. “At first we got Radcliffe, Barnard, U of Chicago, then the state schools, U of Penn, and Ohio University,” Reichert recalled. “Then we started getting Catholic schools, and schools in the South. It was the more educated and upper class first. That was an indelible experience for me. It guided me in [future] filmmaking. …You make the film and you get it to your audience.”

Reichert and Klein dedicated the next year to outreach and distribution. It was all DIY. They learned how to run an offset printer in order to make their own posters. Reichert went on the road with their one print of the film, lugging the 16mm reels in their metal case and sleeping on couches. She still recalls one exemplary incident:

In Athens, Ohio, a college town—Ohio University—a few women set up a screening in an auditorium. We had a pretty big audience, both men and women. I got on the stage with the host after the film. Women started saying, “Oh my god, this is my life,” sharing their experience. Some guy stood up and said, “You ought to make a film about men, because men are oppressed, too.” The women said, “Shut up and sit down.” And they wouldn’t, and people started shouting at each other. At one point, the men won’t sit down and shut up. One woman said, “There’s a room down the hall, we can lock the door, let’s go there, we need to talk about this without men.” So we did. I got a postcard a month later, from Athens, which said, “We decided that night to meet the next week and then we met the week after that, and now we decided to start the Athens Women’s Center.”

Reichert faced hostile male hecklers in places like Norman, Oklahoma, and Tallahassee, Florida. But dozens of women’s centers were also established.

Klein recalls: “We had no sales for the first two years, but had sixty rentals a month. It was rentals because women, as teachers, had the power to rent but not buy films; the buyers were all men.” As a measure of how astonishing this seemingly simple film was at the time, when PBS aired the film on its national schedule in 1974, it insisted on a male panel afterward for “balance.” In 2016, Growing Up Female was entered into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

The fact that Growing Up Female was such an immediate success on an infinitesimal budget, and that from the start Reichert and Klein were able to keep all the profits by forming New Day Films, was career defining. It meant that from then on, at least for a while, the filmmakers could self-fund the start of each new project.

Reichert and Klein’s second film, Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1974), is still highly topical, for it documents a community’s efforts to manage drug addiction. Using scenes and interviews from a methadone clinic in Dayton, along with historical montage, expert interviews, and scenes from a drug-free rehab clinic in Washington, DC, the film argues that methadone is an attempt to pacify and manage alienation. The film is structured, like Growing Up Female, as a social inquiry, with Reichert on camera asking the questions in an empathic, nonjudgmental way, as a stand-in for the viewer. With evidence from a Washington, DC–based communal rehab center that eschews drugs altogether, the film presents a still-topical argument: that the more effective approach to addressing drug addiction focuses on building community and local economies. The film was economical in both design and budget, costing only $11,000.

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Methadone: An American Way of Dealing.

Methadone is notable not only for its investigative work and frank interviews—Reichert and Klein get a clinic employee to talk about addiction among employees, for instance—but also because it specifically locates drug use as an outcome of alienation and injustice. From its base in one methadone clinic in Dayton, the film exposes deep institutional corruption. Thomas Waugh celebrated the film for its close listening to working-class voices, which he saw as a welcome step in a radical film movement too often obsessed with itself.19

Reichert and Klein believed that this film, like Growing Up Female, would easily find an audience through organizing networks. They were wrong. A screening at the Whitney Museum of American Art was picketed by both black and white addicts, who, Reichert believes, were recruited by methadone producers. But the real problem may have been the lack of a movement: “It was a sobering learning, the opposite of Growing Up Female. We didn’t stop and think about the size or power or reach of a movement for drug-free alternative treatment programs. Really, it was just in a few cities. And we also didn’t quite realize the amount of controversy about methadone, and [the] big powerful supporters, in medical and research communities. There wasn’t a community of organizers like with the women’s movement, which was like a brush fire.” It did eventually get on PBS, with an update on some of the characters that PBS requested.

Their next film, Union Maids (1976), was elegantly simple in design and very low-budget at $13,000, drawn mostly from their own savings, with $1,000 contribution from a left-wing foundation. Union Maids was brought to Reichert and Klein by producer Miles Mogulescu, a fellow NAM member who wanted to produce a film about three women union activists from the 1920s–1930s in Chicago, all of whose oral histories were included in Alice and Staughton Lynd’s Rank and File. Reichert and Klein embraced the idea.

They wanted to learn about organizing from their forebears, especially given the silence about the history of political and labor organizing during their upbringing in the 1950s. Astonishingly, even though the women they interviewed made overt references to the Communist Party’s newspaper The Daily Worker, Reichert and Klein claim they were unaware of the women’s CP (Communist Party) membership. They faced criticism from filmmakers, historians, and critics for this omission, but always noted that the women had never mentioned their CP membership; it is also possible that if they had, the still-virulent anticommunism of the time would have prejudiced the utility of the film.

Mogulescu was an early video adopter. He convinced them to shoot in video, a suggestion Reichert and Klein liked for its supposed thriftiness. Video permitted them much longer interview times, but in the end any cost saving was lost in the expense of transfers to film. They worked quickly, shooting the three interviews in three days. The editing interweaves these interviews according to chronology and themes. The women’s stories make vividly clear the wretched working conditions of laborers, especially women such as the laundry workers with whom the African-American organizer Sylvia Woods worked. Union Maids shows that women were critical to the labor movement and that the labor movement was critical to improvements in public welfare in general, and for women in particular.

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Reichert with the women of Union Maids, at the film’s Dayton, Ohio premiere. Photo by Tony Heriza.

Despite its primitive technology and short length (fifty minutes), Union Maids got wide theatrical screening in twelve cities and immediately charmed reviewers. The relatively murky video-transfer images struck audiences and reviewers as aesthetically appropriate. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the directors “never get in the way of their subjects and never put words in their mouths. They don’t have to. Sylvia, Stella and Kate are three naturals, characters whose hearts and minds leap off the screen with a kind of grace and nobility.”20 To Reichert’s astonishment, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category: “We found out when reporters showed up at our doorstep with cameras.” At the time, the Academy was heavily weighted toward men and toward coastal professionals; Barbara Kopple was one of the few women in the documentary division.

It did not win. Reichert had paid so little attention that she did not even dress up for the occasion. Her aspiration was never the Oscars: “I really thought Union Maids could bring the women’s movement and labor movement into discussion, and it did happen to a degree. These women played a role in [getting] working people a collective voice. Union Maids even gets into organizing tactics. It was designed as an organizing tool—maybe not wisely, but it was.” The film’s criticism of the AFL-CIO’s leader, George Meany, led labor leadership to refuse to endorse it, but individual unions used it extensively. It is still the film that people mention to Reichert most often, usually because they saw it in a class.

After their belated discovery of the Union Maids women’s CP membership, Reichert and Klein could not stop thinking about the long-suppressed history of the Communist Party in America. They applied to the Carter-era National Endowment for the Humanities and, to their surprise, got the grant. “I think it was the Oscar nomination for Union Maids, and the fact that Barbara Kopple was on the [NEH] panel that year,” Reichert said, to explain their success. The film was of a scope they had never before attempted. Meanwhile, Reichert discovered she was pregnant—a welcome fact that the couple hid for as long as they could, afraid that the NEH would withdraw the grant. Klein took the lead in production during Reichert’s later pregnancy and after the birth of their daughter Lela Reichert Klein in 1979, but they worked jointly to finish the film.

Fortunately, Klein said, the funding—amplified by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and from a clutch of private foundations—was enough to hire filmmaking consultants. “That was the first time we worked with professionals and really learned our craft,” he said, recalling how they fell into such an editing morass that they had to learn how to accept suggestions from consulting editors. “Finally we went back and read the NEH proposal, and I thought, ‘This actually sounds like a pretty good film,’” Klein recalled. “And we used that structure to make the final version.” The resulting film, Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983), reflected the concerns of the waning New Left, as Reagan’s 1980 election empowered neoconservatives. “I think this was the last moment when this film could be made and seen,” Reichert speculated.

The film again mixes historical montage, backed with classic labor songs and a performance by Pete Seeger, and Reichert’s interviews—frank, warm, curious, and respectful, but asking tough questions that allowed her to be both acolyte and skeptic. Reichert played the role of a skeptical mainstream viewer. Why did these people join the CP? Why did they hide their membership? Did they ever see any spying? Why did they stay when rumors of Stalinism started? What happened to them when Khrushchev revealed the depth of Stalinism? What about the image of CP members as all work and no play? What about the reputation of the CP as top-down and bureaucratic?

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Reichert interviewing Pete Seeger for Seeing Red.  Photo by Tony Heriza.

The directors deliberately focused on the rank and file, not the leadership. The film celebrates the activism of ordinary people who fought for social change. They include a number of women, some of whom are sharply critical of misogyny in the Party. Rough-talking seaman Bill Bailey has some hilarious comments, including his recollection of the desperately poor during the Depression who “didn’t know rheumatism from Communism.” Organizer Dorothy Healey recalls her role as a CP leader: “I was a little Stalin.” Several talk about the intensity of the social life and the strength of community. Not one of these rank-and-file folks ever saw any spying. Some lost faith, some lost jobs, some stayed in the Party after the revelations.

Again, Reichert and Klein had a hit. Seeing Red succeeded from the start, with a six-week run in New York City and eight weeks in Berkeley, as well as showings in a hundred other cities. It also got an Academy nomination, and this time there were rumors it might win. Although it did not, Reichert still remembers with fondness her sequined tuxedo jacket, makeup session, and a written acceptance speech, just in case. Eventually, PBS aired it.

Under the Shadow of Neoconservatism

Reichert’s career since Seeing Red has been spent under the ever-deepening shadow of neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics. In 1983, New American Movement merged with the more centrist Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (and eventually became Democratic Socialists of America), a moment Reichert still recalls as a crushing personal disappointment. The communal household, the shared optimism for fundamental social change, and eventually her marriage all dissolved. She began to search for and build community outside the once-encompassing world of the counterculture, although her nostalgia for the era remains. Her work has become more ethnographically oriented, a rich series of explorations of ordinary working people’s lives under late capitalism.

Reichert’s values continue to infuse all her work. For instance, the four-hour, two-part series on childhood cancer, A Lion in the House, sharply reveals class disparities in access to health care and the extraordinary challenges for any working family in health crisis in America, while both The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) and American Factory are close-up portraits of American workers caught in the slipstream of global trends.

Her films with Steven Bognar have left the public-television nexus behind as well. They have found production support from commercial cable, from equity investors—and, with American Factory, from Netflix and the Obamas as well. With resources in the multiples of anything she had seen in the first half of her career, Reichert’s work with Bognar has become more aesthetically complex, with higher production values and faster production timetables. It is also—partly in response to the imperatives of a more commercial environment—less focused on explaining systemic forces. But it is no less grounded in socialist-feminist concerns.

In the twenty-first century, character-driven storytelling has emerged as a preferred style for social-issue documentary. Organizations ranging from HBO to the Washington Post to Netflix now compete for documentaries and major film/television/streaming awards. They turn to reliable, award-winning filmmakers, who offer compelling and socially meaningful stories, to enhance their prestige and legitimacy.21 As documentary has lost its lackluster reputation and become seen as more commercial, independent documentarians like Reichert and Bognar have become bankable.

Reichert and Bognar’s first project together as codirectors was built on near-tragedy. As Reichert was in the midst of building the program at Wright State and working as a producer on fiction and documentary, in 1996 her family received the terrifying news that Lela had Hodgkin’s disease; fortunately, she completely recovered. In the aftermath, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital chief oncologist, Dr. Robert Arceci, a fan of Hoop Dreams, approached Reichert to make a film about childhood cancer.

With grants from ITVS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and the NEA, the four-hour series amassed a $1.4 million budget. Just as impressive, outreach for the film was budgeted at $1.2 million.22 It was, for Reichert, “the film of our lives.”

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Tim and Marietha Woods in A Lion in the House.  Photo by Steven Bognar.

A Lion in the House creates a gigantic tapestry, featuring five families. It is an observational film narrated by both Bognar and Reichert, in hushed whispers. It is as if the viewer is in the families’ homes and hospital rooms, watching with the filmmakers. They are careful to introduce the children first in a family setting, so as not to reduce them to patients. The hospital personnel are faced with challenges far beyond the medical, including economic and social disparities. Bognar recalls that at first he couldn’t keep the camera on during emotionally and physically stressful and intimate moments. Reichert told him firmly, “They want someone to witness and share and testify to what they went through. If we put the camera down, we’re shirking our duty.”

The extraordinary intimacy and dignity of the film was celebrated in reviews and awards. Lion showed on PBS in prime time on two consecutive nights, a major programming coup. The outreach was extraordinary. In Reichert’s words, it was “the most precious collaboration we’ve ever had” and became a model for future impact work. ITVS coordinated it all, beginning almost three years before the film’s launch, as together they built long-term relationships with twenty-one partners, including major medical associations and nurses’ organizations. Those partners were consulted at length about what issues were important to them, so that short modules could be tailored to their use: survivorship (kids need more aftertreatment care than many know), siblings (who carry a heavy burden), nurses’ relationships with the patients (many times, parents cannot be there, and nurses need to find appropriate boundaries), and, crucially, end of life. At that time, hospice care barely existed for children. Reichert and Bogner’s medical partners told them that Lion put pediatric issues on the agenda for many cancer organizations and medical facilities.

No sooner had Reichert and Bognar arrived at Sundance for the premiere of Lion than Reichert’s doctor called with news: she had been diagnosed with a rare version of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was often fatal. Reichert left abruptly after the premiere. In 2008, she was still in recovery, posttreatment, when the pair heard that Dayton’s GM plant was closing. When GM denied them access, they started hanging out at the bar next to the plant. Over months, they talked to the regulars, eventually showing them a twenty-minute reel of interviews and winning the locals’ trust.

Reichert and Bognar were convinced to bring the project to HBO by Lisa Heller, who had once headed the public television anthology series POV. She greeted them at the first meeting with the words, “Welcome to corporate media.”23 Everything was different now. They got their first payment in a few days, unlike the slow public-television process, and HBO executives told them to actually increase their proposed budget.

However, HBO would also own the film outright, and these were not filmmakers who were used to giving up control. Also, HBO wanted a film ready for Labor Day, a great political coup but one that would put them on a fast track for the very first time. And HBO nixed their plan to frame the plant closing in a larger political/economic context. The social-inquiry mode was supplanted with human drama. Sheila Nevins, the legendary head of documentary at HBO, gave them a key shaping insight. “She said, ‘Your film is about what it’s like to have a job and to lose that job, boom,’” Reichert recalled. “They didn’t beat us over the head [but] they helped us see the wisdom of the unique core we had—the very intimate, emotional sense of a community shocked and beaten down.” The Last Truck provides a close-up, emotionally drenched experience of having a job and a whole way of life taken away.

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The Last Truck. Photo by Steven Bognar.

HBO mounted an Oscar campaign for the film, and again, the film won a nomination but not the award. As usual, Reichert’s high point was less glitzy: the film’s Dayton premiere at the best venue in town. HBO paid for an elaborate event, equipped with projection screens and sound trucks from New York. It was a free screening, with free popcorn, for a thousand auto workers. “It was a night people still talk about, and it made a big difference,” Reichert recalled. “People were sobbing. It was such an important night. People hadn’t seen each other since the plant closed. It was like a recognition that somebody cared. Their experiences were validated. They were the protagonists in their story.”

News that the factory that they had documented in The Last Truck had been bought by the Chinese glass company Fuyao came while they were in the thick of making their film about the 9to5 movement. But when the Dayton Development Coalition called Reichert and Bognar with a plea to make a positive film about the plant, in contrast to The Last Truck, they realized they could not say no. The Dayton municipal officials and plant owner envisioned a work-for-hire job. But they insisted on independence: no money from the plant or owners, complete access, and sole control of editing. Surprisingly, the Chinese owner—himself someone who prided himself on an aesthetic sense—agreed.

This new film, American Factory, is a culmination of the community building and relationships to which Bognar, Reichert, and Klein have devoted themselves over the years. Their investment in Dayton, in factory workers’ stories, in Wright State (two of the cinematographers came out of the program that Reichert and Klein founded), in family (Reichert’s nephew Jeff is also a cinematographer), their history of collaboration—this time including Chinese coproducers—and their history of success with both public and commercial television all came together to make it possible.

Reichert and Bognar shot regularly at the plant for well over a year with no funding, building relationships and getting favors of free shooting days from a former student and their nephew. Then they created a wildly successful pitch reel, drawing development funding first from Field of Vision and Catapult, then landing a million-dollar contract with Participant Productions. Participant made critical interventions, which shaped the film. While Reichert had imagined a three-part miniseries, Participant argued for a feature to be completed in time for a Sundance premiere. And producer Diane Weyermann also provided an important insight by saying, as Reichert and Bognar were struggling with massive amounts of Chinese material: “You guys are American filmmakers, not Chinese filmmakers. We have to watch everything in China through the lens of the Americans.” Reichert realized she was right: “The strength of this movie is that it’s from people who live near the plant and know these people deeply.” Finally, Participant understood the importance of outreach; the bulk of funding for American Factory‘s outreach has come from Participant.

The film follows the first three years of the factory, covering its beginnings as a cavernous abandoned building, the Chinese and American workers’ cross-cultural training and experiences, the crisis when the American plant doesn’t become profitable on the same schedule as other plants, the sacking of the American executives and their replacement by Chinese managers, and a failed unionizing attempt. The style is largely cinéma vérité, with some interviews (mostly in the workplace), and with lyrical visual interludes featuring machinery that would probably impress Dziga Vertov or Walter Ruttman. The cast of characters includes shop-floor workers, American and Chinese managers—even the company chairman, who allowed extensive access that did not always make him look good. After the unionizing effort begins, for instance, he is seen asking his Chinese supervisor with genuine perplexity, “We trusted our American supervisors. Why didn’t they protect the company?”

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Rob Haerr and Wong He in American Factory. Photo by Ian Cook.

One of the highlights of the film is the trip the American plant executives take to China over Chinese New Year. They are dazzled by the splendor of the event: the celebrations featured elaborately choreographed performances by Fuyao employees, a group marriage, and a musical (the Americans’ reciprocal performance is a lumbering, amateur version of “YMCA.”) They are awed and intimidated by the cool efficiency of the factory. They talk to Chinese workers who admit they rarely see their children (“once a year, at New Year’s”) and who accept military-style regimentation at their six-day-a-week, twelve-hour-a-day jobs. The camera lingers on the changing expressions on their faces, which richly tell the story.

American Factory offers up an intimate, lived experience of a cross-cultural process, a moment in the globalized economy that illuminates otherwise puzzling questions: Why did workers making $27,000 a year in hazardous conditions vote down a union contract two-to-one? Why is it so hard for a standardized manufacturing process to be implemented in another culture? What do Chinese supervisors find so baffling about Americans?

The film was a hit at Sundance, winning the Best Documentary Director award. Amid the acquisition frenzy, the directors decided to go with Netflix—not for the money, which was comparable to other offers, but for Netflix’s association with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, which took it on as their first project. Another factor in their decision was Netflix’s ability to provide one-click access for organizations using the film for noncommercial purposes.

This time, the labor movement has embraced Reichert and Bognar’s work and supports legislation for the right to organize. “The film just comes out at a time when it’s being recognized that the democratic rights of working people are being trampled on, and not just here,” said Reichert. “We’re also building strong ties with think tanks, companies, business schools, law schools, management schools.” The film has also sparked criticisms of the harsh terms of manufacturing in China, mirroring recent movements there for unionization.24

Recognition and Invisibility

In spring 2019, the MoMA retrospective put Reichert’s career trajectory into perspective. It featured digitally remastered versions of Reichert’s films with Klein, as well those with Bognar: A Lion in the House, The Last Truck, and American Factory. For Reichert, Seeing Red was a high point. It was shown twice, once with a postscreening discussion led by documentary legend Laura Poitras. The discussion called attention to the parallels between the anticommunist demonizing shown in the film and the totalizing government surveillance of today. Michael Moore stood up to praise the film from the back row.

With such a record, why is this body of work, especially the later work, relatively unsung? Bognar and Reichert think geography is a factor, especially since they do not circulate socially at major festivals and markets. “We’re in the Midwest. There’s an NY-LA-SF focus in film, and that’s OK,” said Bognar. This has also been the experience of Kartemquin Films, which despite a substantial body of work has historically lacked a national presence. Its star director Steve James is rarely associated with Kartemquin. In recent years, the media-arts production house has invested heavily in presence and press to combat its invisibility.25

Reichert has also historically eschewed any designation as an artist. As she said, back in 1997, “I saw myself as an activist who has skills to make film. I’m still a little uncomfortable with calling myself an artist. It denotes elitism, a certain kind of individuality, as though you make art for art’s sake, for yourself, not to make a difference.”26 Bognar, who does embrace the role of artist, feels that the social issues can make the artistry hard to see, even for scholars and film critics: “We’re proud of the visual and sound design of the films. Craft matters to us hugely, and we work with the best people in the country. We mix our films at Skywalker Sound. But because the content is social-issue-ish—kids with cancer, factories closing—that’s what people tend to talk about.”

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“An activist who has the skills to make films”: Reichert at work in 1973. Photo by Eddie Roberts.  Courtesy of Dayton Daily News.

Similarly, the absence of scholarly attention to Reichert’s body of work reflects a bias in documentary studies for the avant-garde, self-reflective, and reflexive—works, in short, that echo the analytical curiosities of film scholars. Like other makers of socially engaged documentary—including many whose work appears on prestigious public-TV programs like POV and Independent Lens and on HBO, CNN, and ESPN in general—Reichert is more likely to be discussed in journalistic articles that focus on the content and issues of her work. This continues despite the fact that the work of independent, socially engaged filmmakers has evolved, often in conflict with U.S. public television, into its own distinct genre.27

Finally, what runs through all Reichert’s work is a positive and expansive view of the culture of ordinary working Americans, something rare in modern documentary history. After the early critiques of Reichert’s oral-history approach, there was little discussion of films’ attention to class culture, their ethnographic tracking of the role of work in people’s lives, or their exposure of the “hidden injuries of class” that surface within every crisis (from cancer to layoffs) and exacerbate it.28 Labor issues have always been rare in documentary filmmaking, with a few historical exceptions. Class is nearly invisible as a theme at film festivals.29 Yet class as culture has driven Reichert’s personal curiosity for her entire lifetime, ever since she left her working-class family and moved to the Midwest for college.

The success of American Factory, the awards, and the retrospective have given Reichert a rare opportunity to look back at her career. She recalls the shock of becoming acutely aware in college of class as a cultural reality that separated her from her peers. She never lost her sense of a cultural “deficit,” her class anxiety, which gave her a familiar and comforting rapport with her subjects:

[M]ost of the time these were people I was comfortable with. Union activists, the old Communists, people whose child was fighting cancer, the workers in the factory near my house. All through it, I felt strongly without articulating it to myself that my own story—how I saw the world and how the world had treated me—had to come out. And it came out, through other people’s stories. Things I know about and things I thought had to be said, by people whose lives had something in common with me. I was comfortable there, happy to be meeting these people, spending hours and days with them.
That commitment continues. She and Bognar are almost finished with 9to5: The Story of a Movement, moving from rough cut to fine cut and headed to release. Screened as a work in progress at the MoMA retrospective, it shows Reichert returning to the social-inquiry, oral-history approach of the early years, now with the wealth of expertise and aesthetic concern of her later work.

The author’s gratitude goes to Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, and Jim Klein for extensive interview time, and to graduate assistant Atika Alkhallouf for bibliographic research and fact-checking.

Julia Reichert Filmography:

  • Growing Up Female (1970, with James Klein)
  • Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1975, with James Klein)
  • Union Maids (1976, with James Klein)
  • Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983, with James Klein)
  • Emma and Elvis (1992, with Steven Bognar)
  • The Dream Catcher (1999, with Steven Bognar)
  • A Lion in the House (2006, with Steven Bognar)
  • The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009, with Steven Bognar)
  • Reinvention Stories (2012, with Steven Bognar)
  • Sparkle (2012, with Steven Bognar)
  • No Guns for Christmas (2014, with Steven Bognar)
  • Making Morning Star (2015, with Steven Bognar)
  • American Factory (2019, with Steven Bognar)

Notes

1. Eric Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 301–21. Barnouw’s study was originally published in 1974.
2. Jonathan Kahana, ed., The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Brian Winston, ed. The Documentary Film Book (London: British Film Institute, 2013).
3. Gary Crowdus, A Political Companion to American film (Chicago: Lakeview Press, 1994).
4. See also Alan Rosenthal, The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Film Making (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 317–29; and Alexandra Juhasz, Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 121–34.
5. The cultural-production approach is informed by Pierre Bourdieu’s look at how different power vectors shape, among other things, cultural expression. See Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
6. Reinvention Stories is no longer available in its original form, but format information is available at https://blog.reinventionstories.org/about, and the short films are still available at the website of public radio station WYSO, http://www.wyso.org/programs/community-voices.
7. This Progressive Era phrase is one that Gordon Quinn, whom Julia Reichert met early in her career through political activism, invoked and used as a defining methodology for Kartemquin’s work. It is articulated in Gerald Temaner and Gordon Quinn, “Cinematic Social Inquiry,” in Principles of Visual Anthropology, ed. Paul Hockings (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), 56–64.
8. The process was described in Julia Lesage, Barbara Halpern Martineau, and Chuck Kleinhans, “New Day’s Way: Interview with Julia Reichert and Jim Klein,” Jump Cut 9 (1975): 21–22, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC09folder/ReichertKleinInt.html.
9. Julia Reichert, Doing It Yourself: A Handbook on Independent Film Distribution (New York: Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, 1977).
10. Patricia Aufderheide, The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
11. All quotations and uncited information are drawn from a series of interviews by the author with Reichert, Klein, and Bognar between June 24 and July 20, 2019.
12. HBO, Participant Media, and Higher Ground are the producers and distributors of Bognar and Reichert’s recent films.
13. From the late 1980s, when large media companies began to zealously patrol their copyrighted material with the advent of digital copying and distribution, filmmakers became ever more wary of using unlicensed material, largely because broadcasters were. But since 2005, when documentarians created the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use (available at https://cmsimpact.org/documentary), filmmaking practice, including insurers and broadcasters, has embraced fair use within the terms of the statement. See Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, “Documentary Filmmakers: Pioneering Best Practices,” in Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 94–108.
14. Julia Lesage, “Feminist Documentary: Aesthetics and Politics,” in “Show Us Life:” Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984), 223–51.
15. Sonya Michel, “Feminism, Film and Public History,” Radical History 25 (1981): 47–61; Linda Gordon, “Union Maids: Working Class Heroines,” Jump Cut 14 (1977): 34–35.
16. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 252.
17. B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 308–14. See also Pat Aufderheide, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 100.
18. Janet Maslin, “America’s Communists,” New York Times, October 3, 1983, http://www.nytimes.com/1983/10/04/movies/america-s-communists.html.
19. Thomas Waugh, The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 99.
20. Vincent Canby, “Film: Three Women Who Didn’t Wait for Lefty,” New York Times, February 4, 1977, http://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/04/archives/film-3-women-who-didnt-wait-for-lefty.html.
21. Patricia Aufderheide, “Mainstream Documentary since 1999,” in American Film History: Selected Readings, 1960 to the Present, ed. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell), 376–92.)
22. This and other information about outreach in Lion comes from Barbara Abrash’s extensive study on the film, A Lion in the House: A Content-Centered Outreach Strategy for Public Broadcasting (Washington, DC: Center for Social Media [now Center for Media & Social Impact], n.d. [2008]), https://cmsimpact.org/resource/a-lion-in-the-house-a-content-centered-outreach-strategy-for-public-broadcasting/.
23. Lisa Heller is now cohead of HBO Documentary.
24. “A Netflix Documentary Provokes Reflection in China: Lessons from ‘American Factory,’” The Economist, August 29, 2019, http://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2019/08/29/a-netflix-documentary-provokes-reflection-in-china.
25. This insight draws on my experience as a member of Kartemquin’s board of directors for seven years.
26. Juhasz, Women of Vision, 126–27.
27. See Patricia Aufderheide, “Documentary Filmmaking and US Public TV’s Independent Television Service, 1989–2017,” Journal of Film and Video 71, no. 4 (Winter 2019).
28. Reichert has referred to this phrase and the book by the same name in her interviews; see Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1972).
29. See, e.g., my critique of festival programming: Patricia Aufderheide, “SXSW: The Colors and Cultures of Documentaries,” Center for Media & Social Impact, March 16, 2014, http://archive.cmsimpact.org/blog/future-public-media/sxsw-colors-and-cultures-documentaries.

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