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Wex Celebrates 50 Years of Julia Reichert Documentaries

Hope Madden Hope Madden Wex Celebrates 50 Years of Julia Reichert DocumentariesPhotos provided by The Ohio State University
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Ohio’s great treasure Julia Reichert joins The Wexner Center for the Arts this Wednesday, October 2, to kick off a retrospective of her 50-year career as a documentarian.

Julia Reichart: 50 Years in Film, co-organized with The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents restorations and brand new, unseen works, from her 1971 debut, Growing Up Female, through her two latest efforts, American Factory and a working print of 9to5: The Story of a Movement.

“I feel so lucky to have started walking down this road back in 1971,” she says. “I’m extremely grateful to the Wexner Center.”

The program  includes Reichert’s three Oscar nominees (Union Maids, Seeing Red, and The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant) as well as her Emmy winner (A Lion in the House). It also creates the image of a singular storyteller.

“The retrospective has made me really look at the films,” she says. “Some of them I hadn’t seen in 30 years. It really made me see that there is a definite thread in the work which has to do with a focus on working class people, ordinary everyday people.”

Growing up Female is what it’s like to grow up as a woman, the societal structures that keep in place sexism and patriarchy – though I wouldn’t have used the word patriarchy back then,” she says. “And Union Maids is about working class people struggling for the good life and for respect at the job. So the films kind of – they’re all different, but they have similar themes of social movement.”

An image from Growing Up Female

What drew Reichert to nonfiction filmmaking in the first place?

“I just grew up as a very geeky, curious kid who loved to learn stuff and was interested in why people were the way they were,” she says. “Part of the answer in why I’ve been making nonfiction all this time is I hope to help people understand each other by telling stories and trying to help the audience fit in the shoes of the other and understand why they are who they are.”

Reichert sees another big theme in her work.

“And also just a real interest in facts and history and getting the story right,” she says. “I think stories are about people. You do your best to make a film that is about a very specific thing – like the closing of a general motors plant in Dayton, Ohio – but you look for ways to make them universal and about the ways in which the tectonic plates of our culture, our economics are shifting. I think pretty much all the films going back to Growing Up Female are looking at the ways in which our culture, our society is shifting.”

Sometimes it just happens.

“With The Last Truck, the economy was collapsing everywhere, but we didn’t know that at the beginning of ’08,” she remembers. “This was happening in our town, we’re citizens with cameras, we went over there. It turned out to be a national story, even though we never left Dayton.”

Reichert believes her roots here in Ohio have meant a lot when it comes to her filmmaking.

“Advocating for working class people – I come from a working class background myself,” she says. “When you try to break out of your working class background, you face a certain kind of humiliation and a sense that you’re an imposter. I felt like an imposter a whole lot of my life. Because I came out of that, it’s like my mission in life. I didn’t want to go to El Salvador or Afghanistan. I felt like my job was to make films about the people I grew up with.”

An image from The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant

Her Midwest roots are strong, as are her connections to independent filmmaking.

“I have a very strong sense of being an independent filmmaker, of always keeping final cut of the film, even if  it means giving up money – which we’ve done – but always wanting it to be our film, the way we think is right,” she says. “But keeping the independent film community alive, the spirit of independence, that’s one of the reasons we also live in Ohio. We keep our nut  – our daily living expenses – very low here. If we want to start on something, we can do without funding. That’s what happened with American Factory, we were at it a year and a half before we got funding. The Last Truck, we shot the whole film before we got funding. A Lion in the House – same. All the films. If you don’t have high living expenses it’s easier to retain your independence.”

Reichert points to changes in technology as well as in the people holding sway over who gets to see films, whether film critics or film festival programmers, as positive steps toward hearing the voices of a wider variety of filmmakers.

“The field has been opening up to women, to young people, to people of color, to people all over the world,” Reichert notes, pointing to some of her favorite recent docs as evidence.

For Sama is told by a Syrian woman – it’s not somebody flying over there to tell a story,” she says. “Midnight Family is the story of a family from Afghanistan and their struggle as refugees. It’s really well done and it’s shot by a woman with mostly cell phones. Women are starting to feel empowered, people of color are getting their chance to tell their stories. The technology has made a huge difference in who has a camera in their hand and who can tell their story and whose stories are now honored.”

“I’m so proud to be a documentary filmmaker now,” Reichert proclaims.

Celebrate 50 years of Reichert’s work beginning Wednesday, October 2 at 5 p.m. when the filmmaker joins the Wex for a conversation and reception. Film screenings run through October 24, with Reichert and partner Steven Bognar offering a Documentary Filmmaking Master Class on Thursday,  October 17 at 4:30 p.m.

Program lineup:

  • Wednesday, October 2, 7 p.m.: American Factory (2019)
  • Thursday, October 3, 2019, 7 p.m.: Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983)
  • Sunday, October 6, 2019, 1:00 p.m.: The Last Truck: Closing of GM Plant (2009)/Union Maids (1976)
  • Wednesday, October 9, 7:00 p.m.: Growing Up Female (1971)/Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1974)
  • Sunday, October 13, 1:00 p.m.: A Lion in the House (2006)
  • Friday, October 18, 7:00 p.m.: 9to5: The Story of a Movement (2019)
  • Thursday, October 24, 7:00 p.m.: Sparkle (2012)/ Making Morning Star (2016)/ Growing Up Female (1971)

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, SCREENING ROOM.

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