TORONTO — It wasn’t long after Julia Reichert arrived on the campus of Antioch College half a century ago that, she admitted, she “got really turned around very quickly.” The product of a working-class family from a small Midwestern town, Reichert was thrust into the roiling tumult of 1960s campus life, with anti-war demonstrations and Black Power protests marching in lockstep with the women’s liberation movement.
“I was engaged in all those as a young person in college,” Reichert said Monday in Toronto. The celebrated director appeared alongside award-winning documentary filmmaker Julia Ivanova for a conversation during the Hot Docs film fest, moderated by Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema programmer Sarah Li-Lun MacArthur.
On campus Reichert experienced a growing awareness of what she described as “all the oppressions and self-oppressions that women experience,” something that would fuel a run of groundbreaking films including “Growing Up Female” – one of the pioneering films of the women’s liberation movement – and Academy Award nominee “Union Maids.”
“I feel like those early films set the tone without me realizing it. All about women, women’s lives, listening to women’s voices, which was in that time a radical act,” she said. “You never saw that. Just showing women’s lives was a radical act.”
Reichert and Ivanova shared the stage for a spirited conversation about their experiences across decades-spanning careers as documentary filmmakers. Reichert is the recipient of this year’s Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award, in recognition of a celebrated career that’s included three Oscar nominations. Ivanova is the subject of a retrospective from Hot Docs’ Focus On program, an annual showcase of the work of a significant Canadian filmmaker.
Born and raised in Moscow, Ivanova immigrated to Vancouver in the 1990s. Her award-winning career has included the films “Family Portrait in Black and White,” which follows a Ukrainian foster mother struggling to raise 16 biracial orphans in a small town, and “Fatherhood Dreams,” a poignant look into the lives and struggles of four gay dads who adopted children soon after Canada legalized same-sex marriage.
The director recalled a “completely different landscape” when she began making documentaries more than 20 years ago. At that time a proliferation of broadcasters offered viable distribution outlets; though her first feature was roundly rejected by festivals, it sold to more than two dozen channels. “For now, it’s an impossible situation,” she said, with far fewer broadcasters commissioning and acquiring documentary films.
“To have the strength to continue…that’s a challenge,” she continued. “We all start with a lot of desire to make stories. And then it’s a no, a no, a no….Eventually, you start to question yourself, and question also the validity of what you’re doing, whether it will change anything.”
Reichert reflected on her own hurdles breaking through as a female filmmaker nearly 50 years ago. “First of all, it was just feeling like you exist. Showing up at the lab and everyone thinks you’re a messenger. ‘No, I’m a director,’” she said. “There were lots of those dumb, sexist hurdles that we all faced at that point.”
She continued: “What really started helping is that we started working together as women. We started realizing that there’s strength in numbers, and we had to share each other’s issues, and support each other.”
That collaborative impulse would lead to the launch of New Day Films, a distribution cooperative that in its early days was largely run by women. Even today, Reichert said she feels a responsibility to assist younger filmmakers. “That’s a really big thing for me: Not climbing the ladder without reaching behind and pulling people up with you—especially women,” she said. “The world of filmmaking is so vastly more diverse than it was. But I still think it could be more diverse. There are more voices that need to be heard. I try to help those voices be heard.”
Ivanova confessed to bouts of disillusionment with the world around her—an impulse she tries to combat through documentaries. “I continue to choose topics where I think films can still make a difference, but in many areas I gave up as a human being. It’s too much. There are a few areas where I think I can make a difference, but a few areas, I feel that we lost the battle,” she said, before adding to laughter: “But also, I am Russian, so we are negative.”
Reflecting on her selection for Hot Docs’ Focus On showcase, Ivanova suggested it was too soon to look at her life’s output with a bird’s-eye view. “I hope it will be considered a mid-career retrospective,” she said. “I have no other passions in life, other than filmmaking.”
“I definitely want to make films that have people thinking about, ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’” said Reichert. The filmmaker’s next documentary is about the 9-to-5 movement, in which female office workers in 1970s Boston banded together to fight for equal rights for women in the workplace.
Forty years later, Reichert said the story is as timely as ever. “If we don’t know how the world was changed by people like us,” she asked, “then how will we know that we can do it now?”