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Julia Reichert: 50 Years In Film Exhibit Begins National Tour

Julia Reichert
WYSO Archives
Julia Reichert

On Wednesday evening in Columbus, Ohio, a special exhibit opened that features the 50-year career of Yellow Springs filmmaker, Julia Reichert. The Wexner exhibit is actually one stop on a national tour highlighting Reichert's work, which has focused in on a variety of "era-defining" issues of the human experience.

This week, before the Wexner exhibit opening, Reichert was a guest on WYSO's Excursions with Host and Music Director, Niki Dakota. In the interview, Reichert discusses the arc of her career from an Antioch college student, with little to no knowledge of filmmaking, to an accomplished, Emmy-winning, Academy Award nominated documentarian.

Niki Dakota: It is an absolute delight to welcome our next guest back to excursions. She is an award-winning filmmaker, and the latest offering from her mind, her documentarian awesomeness is American Factory. We've had an opportunity to see that screened here across the Miami Valley, having won the directing award for this at Sundance this year, and last year, our guest, having received the 2018 Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, and now on the cusp of the opening at the Wexler Center tomorrow night, is that right?

Julia Reichert:Tomorrow night. I can't wait. 

ND: Julia Reichert 50 Years in Film. Welcome and thank you for coming today.

JR: Well, thank you Niki. Always great to be here.

ND: You must feel right at home.

JR: Yes.

ND: You came to us, you're not originally from this area but you came to Antioch College and I believe you graduated in 1970.

JR: Right.

ND:And the very next year you made a film that really sort of changed the face of our understanding of feminism in the United States and the feminist movement. That was called Growing Up Female, released back in 1971. People still make reference to this film. But before that, your very first media expression was on WYSO.

JR:It was. It was right here, of course the studio looked really, really different back then it was not at all the same studio. It was like one tenth the size and of course the walls were covered with egg crates, which absorbs sound apparently, really well, and are very inexpensive. So yeah I was on the air and I had shows, and I learned that the wonderful thing about YSO back then, and it was pretty much a student station, the students kind of took it over, you know, as students did back then in the late 60s, but that's where I learned how to interview, how to cut tape, how to edit, how to mix music, how to tell a story, how tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. You know, and all of this could be learned here at YSO for no money right. It isn't like you had to have film stock and expensive cameras and fancy tape recorders or any of that. You could just do it, I actually really loved cutting tape back then. Have you ever done that?

ND: You know, I started in 1990 and cutting tape was done. 

JR: Was already done. Wow OK

ND:But I've seen the reel-to-reels with that little thing at the bottom you pull it down and it's got the 45-degree angle on the razor blade nearby. That's I how you edited.

JR: That's exactly right, and you hung up the little strips of tape, right? And then put them together in the order you felt was best, yeah that was, that's how I started. We did that for many years. Anyway, it was a wonderful, wonderful time to be at WYSO back then. And that was the beginning. Yeah, and I used all those sound skills when we made Growing Up Female, because actually we had so little film footage, because it was so expensive to buy film stock back then from Kodak. Very, very expensive. So, we really had what, what is called a 2 to 1 ratio, right, which is a tiny little ratio... in other words most of what we shot is actually in the film.

ND:So every for every two hours of film, you get one hour of...

JR:Finished film. So, that's that means a lot of sound in the editing. So, we shot about 100 minutes of film and so that's why, a lot of it, if people see it again, a lot of it is voice-over from documentary audio. So, those skills that Jim Klein and I developed at WYSO, Jim kind being my partner on that film, you know, work came in extremely handy when we were making a very low budget film back then, Growing Up Female, and that was my, actually my senior project. So, for any students listening out there, you could make a film through your senior project. We did. We didn't even know how to do it. We just kind of figured it out. Antiochian style.

ND: Oh, how lucky. So, you were born and raised in New Jersey. Came here to go to college, ended up with your senior project being sort of like your trampoline jump into a career that now 50 years later we have occasion to look back on in a retrospective - This got under way, through the Wexner Center, who contacted the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and altogether this became culminated, they just finished. Did you call this an exhibit, or will these films be playing? Can you go sit and watch these films?

JR:Yeah absolutely. They have a beautiful theater there at the Wexner Center, and the ticket price is not very much. I forget what it is but it's way less than a mall theater, so, tomorrow night is the first night of the retrospective and I'm gonna be doing a filmmaker talk from 5:00pm to 6:00pm, which I'm still working on. And it has quite a few pictures from WYSO back in those days. It also has pictures of the kind of equipment we used back then for the camera equipment, the sound equipment, which is huge and bulky and so forth. So, it has that, and it kind of walks through all the films. And tomorrow night, after that there's like a reception with food and all that at 6:00 to 7:00 and then at 7:00 starts American Factory, which is the newest film that Steve Bognar and I made, and it premiered, as you said, at Sundance this year and has been traveling the world ever since. Actually, it's an interesting fact that that Film is now on Netflix, and Netflix is not in mainland China. It's not there, OK. But, guess what. It's a runaway hit in China, all pirated copies.

ND: Oh, isn't that amazing, and of course, for those who haven't seen it, it's American Factory and it's about the Fuyao plant here in Dayton and the cultural juxtaposition and outcome of this. Amazing.... I don't know... What do we call it?

JR: It was a huge endeavor to create a you know, a huge glass plant, in an old abandoned General Motors factory.

ND: About which you had down another film.

JR:And done another film which is also in the retrospective.

ND:Ten of them, beginning in 1979.

JR: Yeah, ten films are in the retrospective. The first four are on 16 millimeter, which of course people don't use anymore, were made right around here with my partner Jim Klein, and the next, I guess, four or five were made on digital by, you know, by then we had jumped into the digital age, were made on digital and they were also a lot of them made around here with my partner Steve Bognar. So, all these films are going to be seen at the Wexner Center throughout October and I don't have all the exact dates in front of me but each of them is followed by some kind of discussion, often with me or me and Steve or me and Jim, and at the Wexner center. What is their Web site?

ND: It is www.wexarts.org.

JR: Yeah, that's where people can find out. So, tomorrow night is American factory with a discussion with me and Steve and then the next night is a film I'm very proud of called Seeing Red, stories of American Communist and that's from 1983, right? And that's with Jim - Jim Klein and I will be there to talk about that.  But, all the films are being shown, and that's the exciting thing to me, is having the retrospective. I mean, it's nice to get honored as a person, but what's really wonderful is that the films are getting rediscovered, right? This is traveling all across the country. The Museum of Modern Art was the first step. Now it's the Wexler center. But then it's going all over the place.

ND: I've got a list here – Wisconsin; Cleveland Institute of Art; Portland, Oregon; Louisville, Kentucky; Minneapolis; Houston; Silver Springs, Maryland; and finally ending this coming May and June at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C… It’s a year's worth, a year's worth.

JR:Actually, UCLA in Los Angeles also. That might have been added after that was written, but anyway, it's pretty amazing to see, to sit with an audience seeing a film like Seeing Red, or Union Maids, which is even earlier. People who are not even around when the films were made and seeing people just be captivated and have so many questions, to have those films rediscovered is really what's exciting about the retrospective. You know, they're slices of American history, they're slices of the time, and they're true slices of a time. You know, we take a long time to make our films, right? It takes a long time to find the truth sometimes. Truth takes time, and sometimes we invest six seven eight years in a film to really get it right, to really know we're telling the true story. So, these were really like slices of our culture over time.

Like one, I would mention because it was totally made in Dayton, is called Methadone: An American Way of Dealing. So, we're now having, you know, a crisis with heroin, and this was the big crisis that we had in the 70s. It's a very different kind of audience. I shouldn't say audience... Population that was affected then and the methods of trying to cope with that were very different. And so, and we spent months in this methadone clinic before we even brought a camera in, getting to know people, you know, we were entering into a different culture, me and Jim, you know, we were kids a couple of years out of college, Antioch College. But we decided to make this film and we would just drive there and hang out and get to know people. In the last month we brought in our camera person, who was also an Antioch student, actually, Alicia Weber, she was really good. So, that gives you an insight into like who, who were affected in that earlier heroin epidemic, even that there was an earlier epidemic of heroin in Dayton and all over the country.

ND:I found out this last round, our per capita the highest in the country, again it's like the worst kind of Deja vu.

JR: I know, Dayton has been always very hard hit. I think it's because we're a largely like working class town, or we certainly were and now we're almost like an ex-working-class town, which has sent a lot of people to, you know, get painkillers and so on.

ND: I love that you say 'we.' Methadone was out in 1974, by the time Union Maids was released in 1976, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. So, your third film out... and so I think of that and how Julia Reichert: 50 years in Film will travel across the country. I marvel at from... that you stay in Dayton. You could go anywhere, you're not even from here, but since you came here, have made this your home. Why do you stay in Dayton?

JR: Well you know, I really liked Dayton. I mean it's home. I mean, now I live in Yellow Springs. I lived in Dayton for a long time and I love Yellow Springs and I love Dayton. Well there's probably a few reasons. One is, I like.... I like living among regular people. You know, If I lived in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, my friends, who I hung out with would be other filmmakers, other people in the arts, let's say.... And there's some of that here, but overall, you know, like my one neighbor is a high school teacher, another neighbor works at the post office. Another neighbor is a contractor.... just regular folks. And, when we want to have screenings of our films as works in progress, which we do a lot. I might have even invited you Niki, one or more of them. It's just you know you get feedback from, not other filmmakers, and not other big city people, but regular folks who we want to be our audience. That's one thing.

Another thing is, in order to be an independent filmmaker, in other words to really pursue the stories that you feel are most important, not to look around, not to think, 'what kind of movie can I get funded?' or look too, 'What should my next film be?' What would be a hit?' See. Me and Jim, and me and Steve have never ever thought that way. We look to see what would be a story that would make sense for us to tell, and that seemed important. And whenever we get started, we use our own resources, like, we have a camera, we have sound equipment, we have a car. So, we're like citizens with cameras now.

So, we can go and we can pursue the story of the closing of the General Motors plant, or pursue the story of children fighting cancer at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. You know, we can do that without funding which allows you a tremendous amount of freedom to be independent, to not be doing something for a big company like Netflix or HBO or one of the many companies out there. So, life in this area is not expensive. We own our house. We own our cars. We've been able to pay them off. We have a nice sized house. We have a yard. We have a garden.

ND:Just last week you brought us some peppers and thank you.

JR: Yeah, I had too many peppers this year. I still have too many. I should bring some more over. So, that's another reason I love living here. Just the people around and the fact that you can live inexpensively and have the freedom to do what you think is important to do. I think those two big reasons anyway. There need to be more voices and film from the Midwest. Let's face it, most filmmakers are on the coasts pretty much.

ND:We're in studio with Julia Reichert. Julia Reichert: 50 years in Film, this exhibition, having just closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, comes to the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with an opening tomorrow night. Julia gives the speech from 5:00 to 6:00pm.

JR:And then there's a party with food and drink and then the film American Factory, which I'm very proud of. It's been a kind of a hit, actually, it's been amazing.

ND: I love that it's popular across China. I love it. Do they dub it then or is it, English is probably perhaps prevalent enough that I mean, I wonder if someone, the bootleggers bothered to dub it?

JR: Well you know, it's actually available on Netflix in 29 languages including Chinese, because they do have Hong Kong and Taiwan, so it is Chinese. So, I'm thinking that what, I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking what all those millions and millions of Chinese people saw, on their cell phones probably, when they watched the film was with Chinese subtitles. And, there's been, I forget how many millions of like social media people talking about the film people gone back and forth. And one of the really cool things, there was an article in The Economist that quoted some of the social media statements that were made in China about the movie and several of them said things like, you know, this movie reminds us that the wonderful success of China, economically, is built on the backs of workers exploitation.

Because in the film you see that in China, it's very common that people work 12-hour days six days a week even seven days a week. You see that in the film, and we talk to Chinese workers in a factory there. The factory is very efficient. It puts out great glass really fast. They don't have as much automation as we do, partly because people work so fast and so efficiently and don't talk that much. They just keep going, keep going. It's a different culture. I mean, it's not our culture, the expectations of some of the Chinese supervisors and managers for work output and work life by American blue-collar workers, those expectations did not go over well. Sometimes people would be told, 'You can't take lunch, you have to work'.

ND:Which goes back to Union Maids, the whole notion of gathering together to be a more stronger unit, which just doesn't I guess exists at all?

JR:Not in the same way, I mean, everyone in China is in a union but not the same concept as we have. The union movement, which is part of the government, does tend to speak up for workers. But here, we really have a tradition of a stronger collective voice for working people via unions. I mean I will say it is getting smaller and smaller, the union movement. Although actually, I've been reading a lot about labor because the labor movement has really embraced American Factory like the AFCIO and the UAW and so forth. There have been more strikes like more work stoppages by workers whether they're teachers or other tech or high tech workers in the past year than there have been in many years. So there's a feeling that people are at the same time, I was just reading this and make paper the other day here at a hotel. income inequality is the highest it's been in I forget how many decades.

Income inequality and the lack of unions probably has something to do with that. And you'll see that in American Factory you'll see how the company was taught by the Americans how to fight a union organizing effort at that Fuyao plant, and it's... It's something that most people don't realize is that there are specific companies that are out there, to specifically whose purpose is to defeat unions - Union avoidance consultants and most people just on don't know about it and some of the things...

ND: Union Avoidance Consultants UAC?

JR:That's a general term. The one in our film was called Labor Relations Institute. So, it's kind of neutrally about labor relations, but you know, it's its sole purpose, if you ever were to go on their Web site, you'd see that they are a union avoidance company. So we have Union Maids, where we see the kind of the birth of unions right, the energetic birth of unions in the 30s and 40s, and then we see The Last Truck, and then we see American Factory where you see the defeat of the union movement in this country

ND:What an arc you've documented.

JR:I know. It's amazing. I was thinking of it the other day, Niki, I have, the historic films which are three, actually for now with the new one 9 to 5. It's about the nine to five movement of clerical workers in the 70s 80s and 90s, every decade of the 20th century and now the 21st century is touched upon in one of the films. It was not a plan but it kind of turned out that way.

ND:Well, it makes sense that you're here, that you stay here, because you can just exist in your community, a very genuine sort of grassroots feel and just like what's happening here what's important and by virtue of that, this arc it's just remarkable. It's Julia Reichert: 50 years in Film, an exhibition that begins its presence at the Wexner Center in Columbus. You can find out more and I hope you will at www.wexarts.org. American Factory is available on Netflix but available tomorrow night in Columbus.

JR:And let's not forget once again, I know it's almost 3:00 but it all started at WYSO. For me, seriously it all started at WYSO - with me as a kid, you know, college student learning how to edit, learning how to interview, you know developing those powers as just a young person.

ND: It's really funny that this should happen on this day, I love serendipity just in general, we have a houseful of students, young radio storytellers from The Ponitz Center today. They're teenagers and they're gonna be a part of that next generation, that next wave and you're just a perfect, perfect person to look to and say, 'Do you want to do something?

JR:Because you could do it. You can find a way. You can find a way to do it. That's what we did at this sort of the Antioch way the YSO way. You do it by hook or crook. You just figure it out. We figured out everything how to make a poster, how to edit, how to do a sound mix for a film. Jim and I did our first one just ourselves. We didn't realize there were professionals in New York City and that's what they do.  The next films we of course did have a sound mix, and one of them was by an old YSO person, Randy Thom.

ND:Who went on to work on Star Wars among other things. Think of that.

JR:I know Randy Thom from WYSO. He's a legend in the sound world now, wherever you go. Randy Thom, people are awed by him, and he started here. He's now the top guy at Skywalker Sound. He has I don't know how many Oscars. Several, and he keeps a picture on his desk of himself at WYSO.

ND:Does he?

JR:Yep, he does a little black and white picture right on his desk.

ND:So, the winner of many Academy Awards. You've been nominated multiple, multiple times and I wonder this time around what we'll see. Julia Reichert: 50 Years in Film, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with us today.

JR:Thank Niki. This is fun.

ND: Isn't it? And if you would like to see Julia talk about this amazing film American Factory you'll make your way to Columbus tomorrow for the opening of this exhibit, the fabulous booklet they put together Julia.

JR: And is playing all over the country after that, all around so tell your friends and neighbors.

ND: Julia Reichert 50 Years in Film. It's been an honor. Thank you so much Julia.

JR: Okay.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Jerry Kenney was introduced to WYSO by a friend and within a year of first tuning in became an avid listener and supporter. He began volunteering at the station in 1991 and began hosting Alpha Rhythms in February of 1992. Jerry joined the WYSO staff in 2007 as a host of All Things Considered and soon transitioned into hosting Morning Edition. In addition to now hosting All Things Considered, Jerry is the host and producer of WYSO Weekend, WYSO's weekly news and arts magazine. He has also produced several radio dramas for WYSO in collaboration with local theater companies. Jerry has won several Ohio AP awards as well as an award from PRINDI for his work with the WYSO news department. Jerry says that the best part of his job is being able to talk to people in the community and share their experiences with WYSO listeners.