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film ‘We Don’t Just Interview People Once’- Julia Reichert

A discussion with documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert, whose work chronicles labor, women, and the American left, and who won an Oscar this year for ‘American Factory’

‘Union Maids’ (1976) profiled women organizing in 1930s Chicago., Library of Congress

Julia Reichert, who was awarded an Oscar earlier this year for her film American Factory, has been making documentary films for 50 years. Known as “a godmother of the American independent film movement,” her award-winning films have focused on women and labor. Here she talks about how her working-class upbringing in South Jersey informs her work as much as her left politics (dating to the 1960s), offers advice for chronicling the pandemic, and tells what it was like to give her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards this year.

In this interview, she discusses Growing Up Female (1971), Union Maids (1976), and Seeing Red (1983), all of which she made with Jim Klein; The Lion in the House (2006), The Last Truck, (2009), American Factory (2019), and the upcoming 9to5: The Story of a Movement, co-directed with Steven Bognar. I talked with Julia by Skype on April 2, 2020.

Julia begins by discussing her work in progress on 9to5, the organization of women clerical workers that I co-founded.

JULIA REICHERT: (Julia points to white butcher paper on the walls.) That’s the 9to5 timeline. We have three timelines. It starts in 1970 and goes to 2016. One timeline is of the world: [who the] president is, an uprising somewhere, like Beijing. Then it has a timeline of the movement: the Violence Against Women Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, women in combat roles. And then there’s the 9to5 stuff.

KAREN NUSSBAUM: I’m interested in how your films were situated in the historical moment and what you were trying to accomplish with them.

JR: They all come out of a historical context. Another significant thread is how it came out of me personally—growing up female in the ’50s into the ’60s, but also me as a person who did not come from any kind of privileged background. Working-class Republican union dad, working mom, four kids in the house. I didn’t realize until I went to college that we were working-class. I just thought we were fine.

So there’s two things going on. One is the movements for social change which I luckily ended up being part of. We came of age in the ’60s, we get swept up into all these amazing movements, but for me it was a first time ever. We didn’t know about it in our little town.

So it’s partly the movements, the history I was swept up in and partly just who I was. And it has a huge impact on all the films. Why is Seeing Red [which recounts the experiences of Communist Party members from the 1920s though the 1950s] a rank-and-file story? We don’t interview anyone who was a leader outside of Dorothy Healey. Nobody. You see how many people in that film who say, “I got educated by the Communist Party. They made me read books. They took me to school, and I would fall asleep.” I sought out the people, without realizing it, who were like me, who were transformed by being part of a movement.

I was in a consciousness-raising group of five women for many months [and experienced] that group experience of realizing it wasn’t an individual problem, it was a societal problem. Is it my fault that I feel stupid in class? Is it my fault that I feel ugly? Until you go around and talk very honestly with five other women, you don’t know we all feel the same way. That’s the building block for making a movement.

I had the emotional experience of bonding, but also of looking around in southwest Ohio and southern Jersey, where I grew up, and seeing that these ideas about sexism were not getting to women who were at home, had young children, didn’t get to go to college, most of the people I went to high school with.

[On the movement side, there was] the “bra burning” and Miss America pageant protest, which I went to! Women coming out of the buses from New York City, with wild hair and really offensive signs to most people. But the people I grew up with, they were on the other side of the barricades. I felt part of [the protesters] but I also felt part of the people on the other side of the barricades.

So with Growing Up Female, I saw the women’s movement as powerful with powerful ideas but not getting to women well enough. That’s why Growing Up Female is not about the women’s movement itself. We don’t interview Gloria Steinem.

KN: Looking back, are your films from the ’70s, before everything fell apart, more positive? Going into the ’80s, were you trying to tell activists to take heart? Did you have a different mission because things had changed so dramatically by the ’80s?

JR: Here’s how I think about it: I’ve made, with my partners, two different kinds of films. Union MaidsSeeing Red, and 9to5 are reflections on the past which are trying to help a struggling movement find its bearings, take hope, and find out, are these people who were either in the Communist Party, the labor movement, or 9to5 for real? Are they people who retained their caring and dedication over time? I think that’s an important question.

Seeing Red is a lot about that. What did they do when the McCarthy period happened? Guess what? Most of them didn’t leave. They left when their movement was shown to be false from the inside [in 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed and denounced the crimes of the Stalinist period]. That devastated them.

There’s that kind of film, but that has the vantage of hindsight. When you’re in the middle of something, you can’t stand back and say, “This is the important stuff. These are the important people and these are the important ideas.” You can do that 30 years later.

The other films—Growing Up Female [was made] in the middle of a social movement. The LastTruck is in the middle of a crisis. American Factory is in the middle of a huge global change. And Lion is in the middle of changes in the medical field.

So, two different kinds of films. When you’re in the middle of things, I don’t think you can stand back and do a hell of a lot of evaluating. You try to find people who are living through this thing, whether it’s the closing of a plant or the loss of a child, or dealing with hundreds of Chinese workers coming to your town, in America. All you can do is get as deep as you can with people, individuals, and follow them, see what they’re going through and present that to an audience.

Later, we will see what the impact of globalization is on these workers. Ten years later, when you look back on Truck and you see people saying, “Let’s build it in America!,” [see] so many people in tears. [Then] you can understand why the next ten years happen. Those workers were so devastated. I don’t think America really understood that loss.

KN: Thinking about the coronavirus today. What should a documentarian do to grab on to this?

JR: A lot of us talk about this. Steve [Bognar] and I talk every day. I cannot go out, there’s just no way. If I could, I would be embedded somewhere right now, for instance the Dayton Food Bank. There’s National Guard there, people lined up, 75 percent are first-timers—that’s an example. You’d literally have to embed there.

KN: About Union Maids: Why did you decide that people needed to hear about women organizing in the ’30s? Why was that important to you then? [The film was made in 1976.]

JR: As usual there are personal reasons and larger context. It has to do with me having become aware of class in college. I realized that class wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, to lie about yourself, which I had done for years, trying to fit into a college-educated world.

[And] I learned that class was a motivating force in history. Working-class people became important in an intellectual way to me, not just that I felt connected.

I was in New American Movement, a socialist-feminist organization that had some power. Our part of the movement was beginning to be focused on [our] getting a “regular people” job, even union jobs. We wanted to make a tool for the movement to bridge the gap between the union movement and the women’s movement. Our colleagues in NAM were getting regular jobs and fighting in a more mainstream way.

KN: Is that why you had so much of a focus in Union Maids on the tactics [that three women you focused on]—Stella, Sylvia, and Katie—used in organizing the women in their workplaces?

JR: Yeah, we wanted our people to pick up on that. Also, they were incredible storytellers. We literally met them, set up the cameras, and shot.

Honestly, we did no research. We did the research afterwards. That’s why it took two years. I’m a research nut now. The photographs we started finding of that period—women with baseball bats in their hands, guns—what in the hell happened? That led to research in the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

And no one had seen that footage. We wanted to make it entertaining and come alive. Just the interviews wouldn’t quite do that. That’s where the filmmaker comes in. When we did test screenings, and we sprinkled in some moving images, not just stills, you could see people move forward in their seats.

We never thought of it as a film for film festivals or television. We thought of it as a film for the movement. Put it in the hands of fellow democratic socialists and the women’s movement and unions and see if we could bring them together. Get the women’s movement to see their progenitors who were working-class and get the labor movement to put women into leadership.

KN: So you make a film for NAM and it becomes an Academy Award nominee.

JR: Well, it’s a good film! Good story, archival footage, untold story, great characters.

KN: One of the hallmarks of your films are the interviews. You’ve said the three women in Union Maids took care of that themselves. But you’ve also overcome big challenges. In The Last Truck, you conduct interviews through a car window as people are driving out of the parking lot. In American Factory, you interview Chinese workers with whom you have a huge language and cultural barrier. How do you overcome that?

JR: Because we invest the time. We don’t just interview people once. We developed the relationships with people from American Factory and Last Truck over months. We would stop in at people’s houses, or with Lion we would bring people a cup of coffee in the morning and sit down and talk. Time, time, time, investment in time, and people realize you actually care about them. You care about them, not just the story.

And with American Factory we brought in Chinese team members [to help us]. That was 100 percent needed.

KN: There’s a theme in your films of “no regrets.” People in your films paid a cost and made mistakes, but they don’t regret what they have done. Does that resonate with you?

JR: It does. But I hope I haven’t imposed my own life story on other people’s life stories and on the films. I don’t think so. Like Bill Bailey [in Seeing Red] says, “Don’t let them walk over you. Let them know you’re here.” The same with Katie in Union Maids: “No, my family may regret what I did, but not me.”

I feel that way. I found a way not to be on the sidelines of history, the labor movement, the women’s movement. I swim in that same current. There’s a woman in Seeing Red who says, “I feel like I’m part of the mainstream of life.”

When I show Union Maids and The Last Truck together, it’s very hard. People are very aware that the labor movement once was this feisty thing that people were drawn into, and people fought; it was hard but look at all they won. But then we were so disheartened by the workers we got to know [in The Last Truck, which documents the closing of a General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, in 2008].There was no sense of fight back. We looked for it. No sense of “We’ve got to organize, we’ve got to speak up.” We were shocked by that.

KN: What drew you to make a film about 9to5?

JR: I love the approach of 9to5 [the organization], that it was about empowering women. You see that in all the interviews. Your approach was to think about our community and build our movement organically. 9to5 is a great example to the women’s movement and the union movement of today. [Its lesson] is, look at your community, look at their culture and needs, and build from there.

Empower women. Not just organize women, not just get them to vote for something. You all recognized that women saw themselves as second-class citizens then. 9to5 dealt with all that as well as organizing for labor power. You had to organize for women’s power too. I think the 9to5film can help the imagination of the labor movement.

There were a few of you who were educated, and had organized before. But there were so many who rose to the occasion, and had leaders who cared about them as individuals. We still need that!

KN: One last question. How did it feel to say “workers of the world unite” to an audience of 24 million people at the Academy Awards?

JR: Oh, that was great! It felt wonderful. It felt scary. Steve and I knew we had to use those words. The question was how.

I talked about “workers in China, workers in America, workers are having it tough. But things will get better when workers of the world unite.” It just sort of flows, right? But actually quoting Karl Marx—I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about the Wobblies. I think of it as an old radical labor movement slogan. Then people started coming up to me saying I’m quoting the Communist Manifesto.

Steve and I rehearsed. I had to figure out how I would move with this huge-ass dress on. I had to clutch it with both hands. It had a crinoline! It was like a prom dress. I had to practice not tripping over the dress.

I had two things in mind. Don’t trip in the dress. And get to the mic and in a calm, passionate, organic way, just get those words out. Do it in a way that feels like, I’m saying something that’s so logical.

Used with the permission. The American Prospect, Prospect.org, 2020. All rights reserved.

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