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Julia Reichert, RIP

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Julia Reichert, 2011, photo credit Seth Bauguess, Wright State University

Julia Reichert, a significant figure in documentary filmmaking and progressive politics and the arts here in the Dayton area, has passed. I was pleased to see she was deemed to warrant a significant NYT obituary, authored by J. Hoberman:

Julia Reichert, a filmmaker and educator who made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” as an undergraduate student and almost a half-century later won an Academy Award for “American Factory,” a documentary feature about the Chinese takeover of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, died on Thursday at her home in nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio. She was 76.

Her documentaries “Union Maids” (1976), made with Mr. Klein and Miles Mogelescu, and “Seeing Red” (1983), also made with Mr. Klein, were both nominated for Academy Awards.

Both movies mix archival footage with interviews. “Union Maids” profiles three women active in the Chicago labor movement during the Great Depression. “Seeing Red” portrays rank-and-file members of the Communist Party during the 1930s and ’40s.

Ms. Reichert was again nominated, in 2010, for the short documentary “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” which she directed with Mr. Bognar, her second husband.

“The Last Truck” documented the closing of a an automobile assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio, some of it clandestinely filmed by workers inside the plant. The movie served as a prologue to “American Factory,” which Netflix released in conjunction with Barack and Michelle Obama’s fledgling company Higher Ground Productions, and which won the 2019 documentary-feature Oscar.

Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor.

The Last Truck and American Factory are best viewed together; the Moraine facility closed by GM in 2009 featured in The Last Truck is also the site of American Factory, where a Chinese glass manufacturer was enticed to open a factory (non-union, of course, and paying considerably lower wages than the closed GM plant) that employs more than a few of the same GM workers laid off in 2009. Compared to some other documentarians of the working class, Reichert and Bognar execute a light touch effectively; letting the subjects tell the story and the story unfold, and resisting the temptation to insert their own explanations and commentary at length. Their films demonstrate confidence and trust, both in their viewers (to figure it out), and in their subjects (to tell their story without needing translation). I was particularly impressed by the effect of the choice to only use the workers’ own words *and voices* for voiceover tracks.

One thing I’ve noticed over the last few days is just how many of her former students Wright State students eulogizing her hold significant positions in the local arts community. This includes the director of Neon Movies, my neighborhood independent theatre, who put together a retrospective of her films last year, giving me the chance to see more of her earlier work, including the outstanding Union Maids. Remarkably, she completed American Factory and two other films after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2018. She will be missed greatly, here in Dayton and beyond.  

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