Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert dies at 76

Often called the ‘godmother of American independent documentaries', Reichert told the stories of ordinary Americans.

Julia Reichert, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker whose films explored themes of race, class and gender, has died. She was 76.

She died on Thursday night from cancer, her family said on Friday through a representative. She was diagnosed with stage four urothelial cancer in April 2018.

Often called the “godmother of American independent documentaries”, Reichert told the stories of ordinary Americans, from autoworkers dealing with both plant closures (2009’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant) and foreign investors (2019’s American Factory), to members of the American Communist Party (1983’s Seeing Red) to female labour activists in the 1930s (1976’s Union Maids).

In her 50 years of filmmaking, Reichert won two Primetime Emmy Awards and was nominated for four Oscars, winning one with her partner Steven Bognar for American Factory in 2020. She quoted The Communist Manifesto in her speech, saying “things will get better when workers of the world unite”.

Obit Julia Reichert
Julia Reichert with partner Steven Bognar (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/PA)

Born in 1946 in Princeton, New Jersey, and raised in Bordentown and Long Beach Island with her three brothers, Reichert started finding her voice as a filmmaker at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, beginning her long residency in the state.

Her first film, Growing Up Female, was a 49-minute student film made for 2,000 dollars (£1,630) with then-partner Jim Klein that looked at the lives of six women.

When they could not find distribution, they founded their own company, New Day Films, which is still active today. In 2011, Growing Up Female was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry and is considered the first feature documentary of the modern women’s liberation movement.

Reichert is survived by Bognar, her daughter Lela Klein Holt and two grandchildren.