The Sunday Magazine

'The working class has had a role to play in history:' filmmaker Julia Reichert

We talk to independent filmmaker Julia Reichert, who has been making documentaries about the labour movement and women's issues since the early 1970s. Her most recent documentary, American Factory, is about what happened when a Chinese billionaire bought an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio and rehired many of the original workers.
U.S. filmmaker Julia Reichert has become a legend for her work documenting labour history and women's rights (Submitted by Hot Docs)

In 1976, the night before her new documentary was set to premiere, filmmaker Julia Reichert and her colleague Jim Klein watched their footage in despair.

It was a black-and-white film about three female labour organizers during the Great Depression, and they were convinced it was a disaster.

But the next night, the audience in Dayton, Ohio, leapt to their feet. Pete Seeger, who was in the audience, found the filmmakers backstage.

"This is a film that will be seen by millions of people, for years to come," he wrote on a spare piece of paper. "This is a quote — you can use it everywhere you go."

That documentary was called Union Maids. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, and Julia Reichert has since become a legend in independent documentary filmmaking, renowned for her work documenting labour history and women's rights.

We were capturing history from a female point of view on the labour movement that had never really been written about or documented.- Julia Reichert

When asked by The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright whether she set out to become a filmmaker or to change the world, Reichert replied, "Oh, certainly change the world."

"That was definitely what was on our minds. I use 'our' because we really felt part of a big movement right at that time — the late 60s into the mid-70s and beyond," she said.

"To me, making a film was sort of something we did on the side that we enjoyed. We eventually learned we were good at it. We never called ourselves filmmakers until other people started calling us filmmakers."

Reichert's first film, Growing Up Female, which she created with Klein, became a classic of the women's movement. Alongside Steve Bognar, she documented the heart-wrenching final days of a General Motors plant in Ohio in the 2009 film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.

A still image from American Factory, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar's documentary about a General Motors plant and its workers. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

Reichert and Bognar's most recent documentary, American Factory, is about what happened when the same abandoned GM plant was bought by a Chinese billionaire, who rehired many of the former employees.

This May, Reichert received the Outstanding Achievement Award at the 2019 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. Here is part of what she told The Sunday Edition.

Learning about working class history for the first time

I was the first person in my family ever to go to college. I went to Antioch College, which is in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It's very much a school for people who want to make social change. I immediately was immersed into the anti-war movement, the Democratic Party, and so forth. As a child of that time, I studied feminist writings. I also studied Marx, Engels, those kinds of things.

The great part about it was that I learned, as a working class person, the working class has had a role to play in history. I grew up knowing zero about that. It was very empowering, and made me think, I want to find my grandmas of class, and that's what led me to make the film Union Maids. Those three women were heroines to me. We were capturing history from a female point of view on the labour movement that had never really been written about or documented.

How her first film, Growing Up Female, helped build the women's movement

It's not a radical movie or a militant movie. It just looks at how women see themselves, and what are the social institutions that are affecting us. It's the kind of film you want audiences who are not feminists, who are not in the women's liberation movement, to see and think, 'Oh, gosh, that's me, too. That's happened to me.'

Two things are striking about it. One is the number of men who became angry and would even threaten me physically, just on seeing this film — which is not saying anything negative about men at all. They would shake their fist at me. If they didn't threaten [me physically] they would stand up and say, 'Well, you should make a film about men,' and, 'Men are oppressed too.' A woman on the other side of the audience would say, 'Oh, shut up and sit down. This is our night.' And the men would shout back and get into a bit of a shouting match.

Then some smart woman would say, 'OK, there's a room down the hall. All of us women, let's go in there and lock the door.' This happened in Athens, Ohio. A month or two later, that group that had come together because of the movie and broken into that room started the Athens Women's Center. Really, this movie helped build the women's movement, and I couldn't be prouder of that legacy.

Directors Steven Bognar, left, and Julia Reichert attend the Netflix premiere of their documentary American Factory at the Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 26 in New York. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Netflix)

How the union movement has changed over time

In the early blush of the wildfire that was the birth of the industrial [union movement] — the large manufacturing, the stockyards and so forth — I think there was a tremendous excitement, and a sense that we have to organize the auto plants, the steel plants. People were very militant. People were willing to do sit-down strikes, and sit in the plant for sometimes weeks. People were willing to go up against what we used to call goons — armed people hired by the companies to suppress and frighten.

But I think over time, as leadership stayed in those jobs … well, as Stella [one of the women profiled in Union Maids] says, she calls it an 'atrophy of creativity' in the labour movement. I think that's true. I do think, now, I sense in our country a real resurgence of grassroots labour organizing, especially in professions that are thought of as women's professions — childcare, home healthcare, domestic work, fast food. The union movement in the U.S. is actually growing right now. There were a quarter of a million new members last year — overwhelmingly people of colour and women.

What it was like documenting the final days of a closing GM plant in Ohio in 2008

I've never been around so much crying. People were losing their family, they were losing their identity, they were losing their sense of what their future was going to be. It was absolutely devastating. I think most people who have never worked in that kind of factory situation — with a good, secure job because it's a union job, where you see the same folks every day, where you share 10, 12 hours a day — don't realize how that just completely pulls the rug out from under your life.

Whether she found a spirit of defiance among workers at the GM factory

That was so striking to us. People were resigned. There was a little fight-back, but nobody called for a strike. Nobody called for a huge demonstration. The workers had become, I would say, more passive. Not that people weren't angry. Not the people weren't frightened. But that sense of, 'Let's make our collective voice heard. Let's make a big noise. Let's let the community know what this is going to mean' ... Steve Bognar and I, who made that film, we looked hard for that and we just didn't find it.

I think over many years, some of the union movement might have stopped really appealing to the grassroots of their union. I think people were gradually disempowered, even within the union movement. Again, I think that's changing right now.

Julia Reichert's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.


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