Julia Reichert, Documentarian Behind Oscar-Winning ‘American Factory,’ Dies at 76

She died Thursday after a years-long battle with bladder cancer

Director Julia Reichert attends Morning Coffee during the 2019 Nantucket Film Festival
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning documentarian behind “American Factory,” died Thursday after a long battle with bladder cancer, her husband and frequent collaborator Steven Bognar confirmed to TheWrap. She was 76.

Over the course of her five-decade career, Reichert became known as the godmother of American independent documentary filmmaking. Her work illuminating the intersections of race, gender, class and labor has received numerous accolades. Thrice nominated at the Academy Awards – for “Union Maids” (1976), “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists” (1983), and “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” (2009) – Reichert won the Oscar for “American Factory” in 2020. She accepted the award alongside her co-director Bognar.

Reichert also earned two Emmy Awards (for “American Factory” and 2006’s “A Lion in the House,” co-directed with Bognar), two Peabody nominations and won the Directing Award at Sundance 2019. The International Documentary Association honored her with the Career Achievement Award in 2018.

Reichert was also a trailblazer of the independent distribution movement. In 1971, she and Jim Klein, her co-director on “Union Maids” and “Growing Up Female” (1971), along with Liane Brandon and Amalie R. Rothschild, founded New Day Films. The distribution cooperative has existed for 50 years and counts more than 200 filmmakers among its members.

“While Julia made wonderful films, her work building the independent filmmaker community will live on,” said Klein in a New Day press release. “Before DIY became a thing, Julia lived the idea. She even wrote a manual titled “Doing it Yourself” in 1977 that helped generations of filmmakers get their work out.”

Added Rothschild, “If I had to describe what I consider her most important quality, among the many, it would be her ability to inspire others and create solidarity in a far-flung community of filmmakers and ordinary people who responded to her openly honest humanity.” 

Born on June 16, 1946 to Louis and Dorothy Reichert, the New Jersey native’s upbringing informed the subjects she would later tackle in her films.

“I grew up, I came of age in the ’60s. Millions of us saw racism, saw U.S. domination around the world. Imperialism. Saw huge inequalities class wise,” she told 91.3 WYSO, where she used to host a weekly show in college, during an interview last year. “We said the system’s not working and we became, in some broad sense, revolutionaries. Not that we wanted to attack the White House but we really wanted to change society.”

While studying at Antioch College, Reichert made “Growing Up Female” as her senior project. Considered the first feature documentary of the modern Women’s Liberation movement, it addressed society’s impact on women through the lives of six individuals. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2011.

Following “American Factory,” Reichert and Bognar collaborated on “9to5: The Story of a Movement” (2020), about a group of female Bostonians who fought to improve working conditions in their 1970s office. In 2020, they also produced Dave Chapelle’s “8:46” and co-directed “Dave Chapelle: Live in Real Life” the following year.

In 1985, Reichert became a film professor at Wright State University in Ohio. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2018, after surviving Stage 4 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2007.

She is survived by Bognar and her former partner Jim Klein, as well as her daughter Lela Klein Holt and son-in-law Robert Holt; grandchildren Beau and Dorothy Kleinholt; brothers Louis, Craig and Joseph Reichert; and nephew Jeff Reichert, the founder of Reverse Shot magazine and co-producer of “American Factory.”