Julia Reichert was at home — she lived in a commune of young political activists in Dayton, Ohio — on Feb. 21, 1978, when a local television reporter knocked on her door and asked her about the Oscar nomination her documentary “Union Maids” had just received.
“We didn’t even know we were in the running,” recalls Reichert. The film, about three women union organizers in Chicago during the Depression, was co-directed by Jim Klein and Miles Mogulescu.
“We were bowled over and like, ‘Holy s–t. At that point, we were very young leftists, so Hollywood was not something we admired,” she says.
Reichert attended the Oscar ceremony but didn’t go home a winner. She didn’t even consider herself a filmmaker because making movies, to her, was not so much a cinematic endeavor as an extension of her political activism. However, the Academy recognition fueled Reichert’s untapped awareness that, indeed, she was a filmmaker at heart.
Reichert would go on to be nominated three more times before finally, at age 73, winning her first Oscar this year with co-director and life partner Steve Bognar, for “American Factory,” a doc about the clash of cultures when a Chinese company reopens a shuttered GM plant in Moraine, Ohio.
Shortly after the film was bought by Netflix at Sundance, it became the first title from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company, which has a deal with the streamer. “Meeting Julia and Steve at Sundance felt like meeting long-lost friends,” says Higher Ground co-head Tonia Davis. “They energized us immediately and forever. Not just around this one film but around their entire body of work and the entire ethos of their work: why they make it, how they make it, why it’s so worthwhile.”
The couple’s newest film, “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” which was set to premiere at SXSW before the fest was canceled due to coronavirus concerns, once again centers on workers. Fifty years before #MeToo and Time’s Up, the women workers’ organization 9to5 was protesting and taking legal action against companies to end gender discrimination and sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. In fact, the group inspired the iconic 1980 comedy “9 to 5,” starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman, after Fonda met with about 40 members of 9to5 in Cleveland.
“Now we’re seeing a real resurgence of feminist militancy, you could say, and feminist women being able to really speak their truth and speak what’s happened to them,” says Reichert, who worked on the documentary for about eight years. “Boy, as an old woman, I think this is frigging great. We tried starting it back then, but it didn’t really catch on in a way that you could actually punish people and change laws.”
Politics and social justice have remained a passion for Reichert, whether she’s tracking the rise of the American Communist Party in 1983’s “Seeing Red” or chronicling cancer patients and their families in 2006’s “A Lion in the House.” While she has lived in Ohio throughout her career, Reichert is a self-described “Jersey girl.” She and her three brothers grew up in Bordentown, N.J. Their father was a union man; their mother was a nurse. “It was blue-collar middle class, where you have a house that you own, you have a car, you can get a new car every few years,” Reichert tells Variety during a rare break from working to finish “9to5.” “It was that kind of secure working-class background, but without any books or thought of higher education. Basically smart people, like so many working-class people, but not with those kinds of expectations or even opportunities.”
In the late ’60s, Reichert left home for Antioch College in Ohio. Despite her family’s Republican background, she quickly gravitated to leftist activism, particularly the women’s movement. She got her first taste of filmmaking in 1971 with her senior year project, “Growing Up Female,” a 48-minute feature that followed the lives of six girls and women ages four to 34. “We looked at television, movies, magazines and newspapers and all these images of women that were out there in advertising and so forth, and we realized they were all made by men,” Reichert says. “So we were like, ‘Wait a minute. None of these are the kind of images we would want to create about ourselves that really are truly about us.’”
Reichert’s mother drained her bank account of $2,500 to finance “Growing Up Female.” It was considered the first film about the women’s liberation movement, and word of it spread as Reichert traveled the country with a projector and a screen to show it to anyone or any group that would have her.
“Women just really got it,” she says. “It really helped spread the ideas of the women’s movement. It was really like a radical act to just show regular women in their real life, and not these fantasy people that you saw on television and movies and in advertising — the fantasy, the whore and the mother, very limited roles. So that, plus that a movie could actually help a movement grow, really, really impacted me.”
In 2011, “Growing Up Female” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Looking back, Reichert says, “I had enough confidence to begin to believe that I could do something in the world, and I began to feel a little more able — capable, I guess is the word.”
As Reichert’s career blossomed, her presence and guidance became so influential that she has become known as “a godmother of the American independent film movement.” She spent 28 years as a professor at Wright University. She was also a co-founder of the distribution co-op New Day Films and is the author of 1977’s “Doing It Yourself,” the first book about self-distributing independent film.
Reichert and Bognar’s Oscar win couldn’t have come at a more poignant time, as Reichert has been battling stage 4 urothelial cancer since May 2018.
“What I have is actually incurable and fatal, but I don’t feel daunted by that,” she says. “I feel like, OK, I’ve accepted that I’m not going to see my grandkids go to college or probably even go to high school because they’re fairly little, 6 and 9. I understand that now, and that’s my life.”
Except for Reichert’s bald head, one would never suspect that she was in the fight of her life. During awards season, she stopped her chemo (under doctor supervision) in order to feel well enough to walk red carpets with Bognar (who shaved his head in solidarity), speak to the media and schmooze Academy voters. Her energy and enthusiasm never wavered.
Shortly after the Oscars, Reichert and Bognar returned to their home of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a town of about 3,000 people. “There’s a main street that’s about 200 to 300 yards long, and it’s got all these little businesses, like a jewelry store, two coffee shops, a bookstore and a deli,” Bognar says. “They all put up signs — just xeroxed pieces of paper with black lettering — that said something like, ‘Way to go, Julia and Steve. Congratulations!’”
A retrospective of Reichert’s work, mounted by Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts and New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been touring the country since October. “It’s incredibly meaningful to see these old movies being dusted off and pulled off the shelves,” Bognar says.
“I feel like she’s having her day in the sun, and it’s very, very important to me,” he adds. “Not just because she has put in a solid, hard 50 years of work but because she’s got cancer and her life is at risk. We don’t know how much time she has. I really want her to enjoy this rediscovery of her films while she can travel and have fun with it.”
Asked what she hopes her legacy will be, Reichert says, “Now more than ever when I stand in front of an audience, I’m thinking, ‘Who are the young ones out there, especially young women, who might be inspired by what I’m saying?’ I’m thinking of them.”