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2019 Outstanding Achievement Award: Julia Reichert

“Everybody doesn’t have to do everything themselves, you can rely on other people.”

Oscar-nominated Julia Reichert, speaking with the International Documentary Association on the occasion of last year’s Career Achievement Award, perfectly summarized her legacy: the collective. For 50 years—from the subjects of her documentaries to the ethos behind her production company, New Day Films—Reichert hasn’t just been working within the system, but striving to create a new one.

Reichert began making films in 1971 with Growing Up Female, now considered the first film of the women’s movement. Along with co-director Jim Klein, she set out to profile a group of six girls and women, from the ages of four to 35, from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, asking each what it means to come of age in America. At the time, the doc was revolutionary and won praise from the likes of Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas. Decades later, it still resonates for how it considers the intersection of race, class, consumerism and gender. (Indeed, in a testament to the doc’s lasting impact, in 2011 it was added to the National Film Registry.)

One of the reasons the doc continues to resonate is that Reichert and Klein made a decision that remains rare to this day: they let women speak for themselves. Instead of placing a narrative around their subjects, Reichert and Klein allow them to candidly reflect on the socialization that bears down on them.

This ability to live in the grey areas—to listen to their characters, rather than push an agenda even when exploring political topics—remained a constant in Reichert and Klein’s working partnership. In 1974, they made Methadone: An American Way of Dealing, which chronicled how addiction intersects with sexism, racism and class, and society’s role in abetting it.

In 1976, the pair, along with Miles Mogulescu, earned their first Oscar nomination for Union Maids, which told the story of three women trade unionists who were integral to the Depression-era movement. The women’s stories of facing racism and sexism are set to rousing 1930s union anthems, further animating their histories. Reichert said, again to IDA, that it wasn’t until after the Oscar nomination for Union Maids that she remembered “very distinctly feeling like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m a filmmaker.’”

With this newfound realization, Reichert and Klein continued to explore the history of the left and the labour movement in America, this time looking at the American Communist Party in the 1930s through 1950s in Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983). The topic was not an easy one given the right-wing US administration led by Ronald Reagan, but the documentary went on to become of one the most widely screened films of the decade and garnered the duo their second Oscar nomination.

Over the next decade, Reichert turned to producing, writing and teaching, all while growing New Day Films. “Initially formed because the women’s movement had arrived and a group of independent filmmakers couldn’t find distribution for their feminist films,” as their website says, New Day Films now boasts a roster of over 150 active members and a back catalogue of hundreds of titles.

In 2006, after six years of filming, Reichert returned in a directorial role with A Lion in the House. Co-directed with Steven Bognar and winner of a Primetime Emmy, the four-hour documentary chronicles with painful frankness the lives of young patients, their families, and the doctors and nurses in the cancer ward of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Made after Reichert’s own daughter survived cancer, the film resonates with a crushing intimacy that could only have been achieved by a parent who lived through the same experience as their subjects. Even the length speaks to Bognar’s and Reichert’s investment and empathy in the stories.

In the last decade, Reichert has returned to a labour theme. Her 2009 Oscar-nominated short, The Last Truck (co-directed with Bognar), chronicles the closing of a General Motors factory, and the labour movement within late capitalism is addressed in both American Factory (co-directed with Bognar and winner of Best Direction at Sundance this year) and Raises Not Roses: The Story of the 9 to 5 Movement. With the gig economy on the rise and the union movement in decline, the films couldn’t be more timely.

But what’s more striking, and has always been the case in Reichert’s work, is how she underlines the human perspective behind the headline. When faced with recognition of the Other, be it the child with cancer or the laid-off factory worker, Reichert makes it all but impossible to deny we’re part of something larger. The onus to make things better lies as much with you as the stranger you’ve yet to meet.

– Kiva Reardon

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