The Good Fight: The Films of Julia Reichert

American Factory

By Robert Kotyk

In the first scene of Julia Reichert’s first film, Growing Up Female (co-directed with Jim Klein, 1971), a woman takes the hand of a young girl, walks her down the front steps of a house, and guides her along an Ohio sidewalk, the girl moving along as though in a trance, taking in the world in all its strangeness. On the soundtrack, Reichert’s voice narrates, “Society teaches us that when we reach the age of 21, we are free to live our lives as we choose. But by the time a woman comes of age, what choices does she really have?” The image of two women holding hands—a small gesture of solidarity—contrasted with this calm yet direct appraisal of the oppressive forces beyond their control neatly encapsulates the plainspoken yet sharply political sensibility that has defined Reichert’s nearly 50-year career, which is currently being celebrated in a retrospective co-presented by MoMA and the Wexner Center. (Some of the films were recently shown at Hot Docs in Toronto, where Reichert received the festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award.)

Since this first film, Reichert and her assorted collaborators (primarily Klein on her earlier films, Steven Bognar on her later) have consistently focused on issues of gender, class, race, healthcare, and political organizing via the history of the labour movement—subjects that, obviously, have a greater and greater urgency in our present. Often described as the first film of the modern women’s movement, Growing Up Female evinces those traits that will mark all of Reichert’s work to come: an authoritative, common-sense approach conveyed via a humble Midwestern quality, a combination of political fervour and polite restraint. (That restraint is all the more impressive considering the loathsomeness of some of the film’s subjects: capitalism, a force that is never far off in any of Reichert’s films, is represented here by a louche advertising executive who smirkingly describes the strategies by which his industry manipulates women.) Further, the film’s seemingly unassuming opening foretells the unique gift that Reichert will bring to bear on all of her wide-ranging subjects: an ability to capture those moments of political consensus (and action) when hands are offered from one comrade to another across movements, identities, and generations in times of collective struggle.

The first thing that strikes one when watching Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1974), which Reichert and Klein made a few short years after Nixon first declared the government’s “war on drugs,” is how little progress has been made since in the debate on these matters. Pointing toward the hope for a future of humane drug treatment that, for all intents and purposes, was about to be shattered, Methadone demonstrates the ways that community can act as a method for coping not only with economic or state oppression, but that which individuals turn upon themselves via addiction. The film ends with a shambolic jam session performed by its subjects—as sad and beautiful a symbol for the end of the counterculture as any cinematic moment from that period. In the Oscar-nominated Union Maids (1976), co-directed with Klein and Miles Mogulescu, Reichert shifts her focus to struggles in the past, interviewing three salty female union agitators from the labour movement of the ’30s, who describe, with openness and good humor, how they pursued the fight for workers’ rights, often risking their safety and security in the process—an intersection of feminism and class consciousness that will recur throughout Reichert’s work.

A massive leap forward in narrative technique, via its complex juggling of different viewpoints in an effort to create a form of collective storytelling, Reichert and Klein’s Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983) continues the project the duo began with Union Maids, again seeking to preserve an essential yet almost forgotten aspect of 20th-century American history. Interviewing several former members of the CPUSA, who are lovingly framed in assorted everyday locales (at dinner tables, on docks, sitting and drinking), the film recounts the rise and fall of American Communism from the ’30s through to the ’50s, when the persecution of the House Un-American Activities Committee was compounded by Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in his “secret speech” of 1956—a revelation that seems to have stunned and traumatized each and every one of the film’s subjects, who had spent their lives questioning the status quo but had never foreseen such an admission of guilt from a regime in which they had placed such complete and total faith.

Despite its celebration of this vanished epoch of the American left, Seeing Red ends on a note of Reagan-era gloom, and one senses that Reichert was herself looking ahead with a similar sense of fatalism. With the dawn of the neoliberal era and so-called Third Way leftism, we find Reichert at a crossroads: what is a committed leftist to do when the left (or at least those of its representatives in power) has abandoned socialist principles in favour of embracing the ethos of the ruling class? Reichert’s answer, delivered in the form of her lone fiction feature, Emma and Elvis (1993)—a self-lacerating examination of the failures of the movements of the ’60s—was to address the generational gulf between the radical boomers and the emergent Gen Xers, in a characteristic attempt to find solidarity and move forward. Released at a time when self-congratulatory nostalgia about this era was more common than genuine insight, this odd man out in the director’s filmography is as honest a reckoning with the legacy of the ’60s as Reichert’s generation ever produced.

Reichert’s first film in the 2000s was also one of her masterworks: A Lion in the House (2006), a documentary about children suffering from cancer, which is surely one of the most heartrending films ever made. (Reichert came to the subject through personal experience: her own daughter had been receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.) Shooting on early aughts-grade video, Reichert and her co-director Bognar approach their unimaginably delicate subject through compassionate questions (to the children, their families, and their healthcare providers), a relentless intelligence, a sure and swift sense of editing that makes the film’s nearly four hours virtually fly by, and an ability to hold their camera on the most painful of circumstances without a hint of exploitation or bad faith. As in Shoah (1985), another epic-length documentary that faces mortality head-on, A Lion in the House makes us feel the horror of its subject through the accumulation of small increments of devastating personal disclosure: a mother and grandmother kissing their beloved child for the last time; a girl receiving a spinal tap; a young girl with a terminal diagnosis weeping for joy when she is allowed to spend her last days at home; the funeral of a boy who has revealed an extraordinary capacity for courage. These are some of the most personal and painful moments one could imagine, and the fact that they were recorded at all is a small miracle—one that was only possible thanks to Reichert and Bognar’s subtle yet magnificent artistry.

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009), Reichert’s third film to be nominated for an Academy Award, collects the reminiscences of GM line workers in Moraine, Ohio, on the last day before their plant shuts down. Not only an elegy for a way of American life that was (and is) on the decline, the film also captures a peculiarly American brand of hopefulness, one that persists even in the face of defeat. The tears shed as the co-workers embrace one another on the production line and in the bars after hours are a testament to the strength of those relationships that arise from shared experience, even (or perhaps especially) when they are occasioned by the practice of alienated labour. (That some of the men interviewed are at first reluctant to show their tears also makes this an understated but invaluable essay on working-class masculinity.)

Something is different in Moraine in this year’s American Factory, which won the Directing Award for documentary at this year’s Sundance, was chosen by Barack and Michelle Obama for their curated slate of programming on Netflix, and is not only one of the most original and incendiary documentaries in Reichert’s oeuvre, but also one of the most fascinating American documentaries released this decade. The vanished economic activity mourned by the workers in The Last Truck has returned, but in a radically altered form: a Chinese glass firm has expanded to Ohio and opened a manufacturing centre in the very same plant as the earlier film, bringing in workers and managers from China to work alongside the new American hires. The intermingling of workers and workplace cultures occasionally takes on a surreal dimension, as when the new owner, Cao Dewang, walks through the Moraine plant and is greeted as “Chairman” by American hardhats, or when Chinese workers receive instructions not only on how to deal with Americans’ “unearned confidence,” but how to use it against them.

For their part, the Americans are both thrilled and threatened by the Chinese investment in their struggling community, and there’s a delicate balancing act between those workers who would seek to form a union under the new bosses, and the managerial class that seeks to suppress it, concerned that the spectre of organized labour would scare off this much-needed infusion of foreign capital. Later, on a company visit to the firm’s home office in China, a delegation of American workers witnesses some of the quasi-totalitarian culture of their sister factory—including a company anthem that celebrates “transparency” (referring to their product, presumably, rather than the government)—and comes face to face with their Chinese counterparts. After some stiff exchanges and awkwardness (the Chinese security vests, we observe, are not fitted for American waistlines), the Americans participate in a company talent show, and end up having a blast.

What comes through most powerfully in American Factory is an inherent desire for social bonds, one that is both occasioned and, frequently, impeded by the mechanisms of business. In one of the film’s most striking passages, Chairman Cao reflects on his career with some ambivalence: even after all his success, he says, he’s not sure if he’s the hero or villain in the story. It seems that, regardless of one’s position in the hierarchy of 21st-century capital, no one is happy, and no one is convinced that they are doing the right thing (how could one be?). The conclusion one is left with is that, for all of these souls struggling within (and even at the top of) the factory system, it is the system itself that is the common denominator, and thus the necessary target for disassembly.

Reichert and Bognar’s latest film, 9to5: The Story of a Movement, chronicles the campaign against the abuse of female workers by male bosses that began in Cleveland in the early ’70s, and eventually inspired the hit Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin-Dolly Parton film. Collecting interviews with some of the key players in the campaign, the directors characteristically focus on process and praxis, the nuts and bolts of creating (and sustaining) a movement. Once again revealing the deep historical roots of some of today’s most pressing issues, Reichert also once again demonstrates how a focus on and dedication to the local (unsurprisingly, Ohio is again the primary stage of the action here) can provide the ideal lens through which to view the repercussions of issues that are national and even international in scope.

If Reichert’s is a model of a truly committed cinema, however, it’s telling that the film that contains what might be her ethos is one of her most intimate and personal. In A Lion in the House, Dale Ashcraft—whose son Justin refuses to give up his painful cancer treatments, he and his family clinging on to hope even as recovery looks less and less possible—confides to the camera: “You do what you have to in this world. You can either ignore it and go about your life’s business, or you can get in the middle of it. I chose to get in the middle of it.” That same kind of immersion in struggle is the guiding principle of Reichert’s work: her films put front and centre those things in our world that are still worth fighting for, and reveal those simple, shared human qualities that could potentially lead us to victory, if we were only to emerge from our culture’s perpetual daze of apathy and powerlessness and take action.