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Julia Reichert, Oscar-winning godmother of documentaries, dies

[Eryn Montgomery]
Julia Reichert

Julia Reichert, an Academy Award winning documentarian whose films often wrestled with race, gender and class, has died. She was 75.

She was known in the international film as the "godmother of American independent documentaries." Others applaud the Academy Award winner as an activist.

She saw herself as a feminist and the curator of Midwestern stories.

Long-time Yellow Springs resident and former WYSO host explored the stories of ordinary, working class people in relationship to gender, social-economic class, activism and race in America.

Her films include three Academy Award nominees: "Union Maids" and "Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists" (with Jim Klein), and "The Last Truck: Closing of A GM Plant" (with Steven Bognar). "The Last Truck" documented the last GM truck to roll off the Moraine assembly line.

In 2020, she and her partner Steven Bognar won an Academy Award for best feature documentary and a Sundance Film Festival best director award for "American Factory."

Many of Reichert’s views were ignited while attending Antioch College in the mid 1960s. She was part of a small group of female students who read provocative essays about women’s liberation while questioning social norms.

I grew up, I came of age in the '60s. Millions of us saw racism, saw U.S. domination around the world. Imperialism. Saw huge inequalities class wise. We said the system’s not working and we became, in some broad sense, revolutionaries," she told WYSO in an interview last year. "Not that we wanted to attack the White House but we really wanted to change society."

Reichert and her compatriots were interested in building institutional alternatives.

"How do we live the life we foresee, that we’d like to have — how do we do that? Thinking, sexism and patriarchy. This just doesn't go to the government and the boardroom and the job. It goes to the bedroom and the kitchen, right?" she said. "It goes to how we treat each other. So if you want to start rooting out these sexist ways we operate, I mean, both women looking down upon ourselves and men thinking they own the world and are smarter and more capable. It goes both ways, right? So I think there was a general sense we can build a new world and there's a line we can bring to birth a new world on the ashes of the old for the union makes us strong." 

While at Antioch, Reichert hosted a weekly show on WYSO, called The Single Girl, that challenged women to think beyond the narrow gender traditions in which they were raised.

"The radio station and the darkroom I credit as my forge. But at the time, you're not thinking that," she said. "I had no idea I would be, quote unquote, a filmmaker. I just knew I loved photography. I loved getting better at it. I loved learning about taking pictures. And I really loved the radio." 

Reichert grew up in Bordentown New Jersey with three brothers. She often described herself as an outsider.

"I was a very awkward kid, wore glasses really early, and in those days you were four eyes. I was a tomboy. The idea that you would sit around with scissors and cut out little dresses and stick them on cardboard dolls. I just totally did not get that," she said. "And I didn't know anybody who was like me ... I loved nature. I loved science. But I always wanted to understand how people worked because I often thought I was like a martian. I was intensely curious about people because I felt so different from everybody else."

These awkward feelings combined with her unquenchable desire to reveal quiet human truths sparked her 1971 debut film, "Growing up Female," a joint project with then partner Jim Klein. Forty years later, the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry selected it as a historically significant film.

During her 50-year career, Hollywood offers came Reichert's way — accompanied by what she called "real money." But the artist credits her personal commitment to tell the stories of people for keeping her planted in the Midwest.

"We need filmmakers, radio, people, whatever. Activists in the Midwest. We need people who are interested in examining and changing the world. We need to put down roots so we can be a voice where there is no voice. The Midwest, in this case, it was Dayton, Ohio, and I'm very proud of that."

Reichert was co-founder of New Day Films, an independent film distribution co-op. She earned a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association. She also authored, "Doing It Yourself," the first book on self-distribution in independent film.

And over the years, she mentored dozens of emerging filmmakers as a Professor of Motion Pictures at Wright State University.

Julia Reichert was 75. She leaves her partner Steven Bognar, daughter Lela Klein Holt, three brothers, two grandchildren, a nephew and a host of loving friends and colleagues.

Copyright 2022 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.