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Julia Reichert was proud to be a voice for the Midwest

julia reichert steve bognar
Jordan Strauss
Invision, AP
Julia Reichert celebrates her Academy Award for "American Factory" with her nephew Jeff Reichert (left) and husband Steven Bognar.

The Oscar- and Emmy-winning Yellow Springs resident, who died Thursday, made films about a Dayton-area factory, Cincinnati children with cancer, the 9-to-5 feminist movement and Dave Chappelle.

Ten years to make a movie?

I first learned about filmmaker Julia Reichart as she was finishing A Lion In The House, the nearly four-hour documentary filmed over six years about young cancer patients at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. The show, which took a decade to complete, aired on PBS' Independent Lens in 2006 and earned Reichert and her husband, Steven Bognar, their first Emmy Award.

She told me how they'd drive from their Yellow Springs home to Children's Hospital with cameras and sound equipment in their car. She didn't mention the inspiration for the film — her adolescent daughter’s struggle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What I do remember is that about the time the film premiered in 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival — where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Documentary Award — Reichert had been diagnosed with cancer, the disease which took her life Thursday, Dec. 1, in Yellow Springs. She was 76.

An all-in commitment to her films was constant throughout her 50-year career. So was her laser focus on working class issues with 9to5: The Story of A Movement, and two award-winning films show at the former General Motors plant in the Dayton suburb of Moraine, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) and American Factory (2019).

American Factory, produced in conjunction with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions deal at Netflix, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature, the Emmy Award for best documentary/nonfiction directing and Sundance Film Festival trophy for best documentary and Grand Jury Prize.

Comedian Dave Chappelle asked Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar to film his outdoor comedy concert in Yellow Springs during the 2020 pandemic.
Courtesy Pilot Boy Productions
Comedian Dave Chappelle asked Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar to film his outdoor comedy concert in Yellow Springs during the 2020 pandemic.

Two years ago, Reichert and Bognar were invited by fellow Yellow Springs resident Dave Chappelle to film his outdoor concerts during the COVID pandemic, which was released as Dave Chappelle: Live in Real Life.

Reichert was born and raised in Bordentown, N.J., by her father, a butcher, and her mother, a homemaker who became a nurse. She enrolled in Antioch College in Yellow Springs in the 1960s, and never left town. All that shaped her filmmaking perspective.

"I'm a '60s girl and a working class kid," she told me last year before 9to5: The Story of A Movement premiered in 2021 on PBS' Independent Lens. It showed how Cleveland secretaries and University of Cincinnati clerical workers played a pivotal role in the late 1970s and early 1980s grassroots labor movement.

"I was so impacted by the marches of the '60s for civil rights, the anti-war movement and the women's movement. I see how these movements impacted the community and the world," she said. "My father was a union man, a Republican. We had security. We owned a house. We had a new car every two years. We took vacations every year, and we traveled. I know unions are important."

At Antioch College, she was inspired by a film course and hosting The Single Girl on campus station WSYO-FM. Later she taught filmmaking for many years at Wright State University in Dayton and the University of Dayton.

"I came out of radio,” she said in an interview with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists before winning the 2019 Oscar, according to the New York Times.“So without having to spend any money, I learned a lot about interviewing and editing and mixing music and how to talk — how to tell a story in a time frame.”

Dorothy Kleinholt photo
Courtesy Steven Bognar
Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert

She rarely used a narrator in her films. Reichert and Bognar let people tell their own stories through interviews, which made their films very intimate and powerful.

"I like to get out of the way. There is an authenticity to directly relate what the audience is seeing and what they're hearing," she told me last year.

Her New York Times obituary said Reichert "came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission. Her films were close to oral history: Eschewing voice-over narration, they were predicated on interviews in which her mainly working-class subjects spoke for themselves." She became "a source of inspiration for other Midwestern documentarians," including Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11), the Times said.

Despite her success, Reichert was happy to stay in Yellow Springs and make films about Midwest people.

"We need filmmakers, radio, people, whatever. Activists in the Midwest," shetold WYSO last year."We need people who are interested in examining and changing the world. We need to put down roots so we can be a voice where there is no voice. The Midwest, in this case, it was Dayton, Ohio, and I'm very proud of that."

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.