Film

Julia Reichert’s 50 Years of Challenging the Status Quo

A retrospective series at the Museum of Modern Art is putting a spotlight on the veteran documentarian.

From Union Maids (1976) (courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

Awards have come easily to documentarian Julia Reichert. Over the course of nearly 50 years, she has earned three Oscar nominations, a Sundance Directing Award, an Emmy, and a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association. But because she’s usually bypassed the standard theatrical distribution model, critical and popular recognition have been much rarer. But now she is the subject of a new retrospective series at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts, making this a prime opportunity to see her work for the first time.

Reichert releases her films (many of which were made in collaboration with James Klein) through her own New Day Films, which goes directly to community centers, libraries, high schools, and universities. Besides rarely adhering to the roughly 80-150-minute length required for theatrical distribution, they are also unabashed challenges to the status quo. They’ve championed labor movements and the Communist Party, and have challenged racism and sexism. She often shoots on video, not only to cut costs but also to allow for uninterrupted conversations. Her subjects are allowed to speak freely and at length, and they are often bluntly critical of powerful institutions. It’s far from agitprop, however, and Reichert never repeats herself. Instead she weaves a tapestry of viewpoints that leaves synthesis and revelation to the viewer.

In Seeing Red, American Communist Party members discuss what brought them to the organization. Invariably, they were assisted by a party member, or watched one lead a group to a municipal office to demand water, electricity, or mercy. They share their beliefs, and explain how the party has helped them work toward a more equitable society. They skillfully rebut the common accusations of McCarthyism, and recount the effects Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” had on them (none defend Stalin or renounce their belief in socialism as a vehicle for equality and democracy). The focus is on the internal contradictions and external forces that led to the party’s downfall. The film is surely a more nuanced look at socialism in America than anything else presented in classrooms and community centers during the Cold War, and even today, it offers a great look at what organizing and struggle look like.

From Growing Up Female (1971) (courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

While Seeing Red’s subjects are certain of their convictions, those in Growing Up Female, who are attempting to explain the place of women in society, can’t help but sound like they are repeating talking points that don’t quite make sense. We see the shoddy underpinnings of our construction of gender norms in pre-adolescent girls who forsake dresses for jeans, the absurdities of a teacher making gendered assumptions of elementary school children, and an extended sequence dedicated to a young working African American woman who’s acutely aware of her double bind. The film also demonstrates Reichert’s skill as an interviewer, as she constructs a tightly edited, navigable polyphony. When talking to young girls about gender, her questions are childlike but not childish, and their answers are revealing in their honesty and simplicity. She has no need to openly confront certain interviewees because her questions are so incisive that they are given the rope with which to hang themselves, as one advertising executive does. Reichert does not editorialize, because merely allowing her questions and their answers to be heard is sufficient.

Reichert shows off these qualities best in Methadone: An American Way of Healing, which examines a large clinic that attempts to treat heroin users by giving them a free dose of methadone every day, with mixed results. Some find methadone addiction to be as crippling as heroin, while others alternate between the two drugs depending on their situation. Addicts instinctively understand the root causes of their vice. Men repeatedly invoke the dehumanizing conditions of factory jobs, and how criminality is rewarded while hard work is not. Women paint bleak pictures of entrapment in a patriarchal system. The methods of the clinics, we learn, may be effective for treating heroin addiction (except when the counselors are selling it back to patients), but they ignore its causes. The last third of the film pivots to look at another center that treats addiction both physiologically and socially. It organizes conversations, activities, and employment to help restore addicts’ sense of purpose. Here Reichert’s straightforwardness doubles as rare dignified treatment for these interviewees, and they are eager to open up.

Getting into Reichert’s films feels like uncovering a lost piece of American history. Her wide range of subjects (which also include the making of an opera, the impact of child cancer diagnoses on victims and families, the 2008 recession, and the closing of the last GM plant in an Ohio town, among others) are almost archaeological insights, digging up fundamental chapters that have been purged from textbooks, if they were ever there in the first place. It is an unfortunate paradox that such a task can only take place outside the structures that maximize the number of viewers, but that only makes it more urgent to spread the word.

From American Factory (2019) (courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

Julia Reichert: 50 Years in Film plays May 30 – June 8 at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan). The series will begin touring later this year.

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