The film, “1971,” tells the story of eight Americans who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 with the hope that they would uncover files showing the FBI had infiltrated and spied upon activist communities. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 18.
I sat down with the film’s director, Johanna Hamilton, the day after the premiere. She discussed what makes the story of what these Americans did so powerful, the renewed relevance the story has because of Edward Snowden, contemporary examples of domestic spying she considered when making the film, trying to get someone who was involved in the FBI investigation to appear in the film, the decision to film reenactments with actors for the documentary, and more.
The PEN American Center in New York is holding a screening and discussion at 7 pm on April 30 with Hamilton, Bonnie and John Raines, two of the Americans involved in taking the FBI files, Larry Siems and Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary, which is the definitive book out there on this incredible story and period in history.
To coincide with that event, here is the interview I conducted with Hamilton.
GOSZTOLA: When I think of this story, it seems like one of these perfect, timeless universal stories. If you’re a filmmaker, you really appreciate this story because it seems like it could be told almost any time and people would be very engaged with it.
HAMILTON: Totally. I mean, you completely encapsulated part of what was so fantastic about this story. There are so many other elements obviously that are so great but that’s what makes stories so enduring. These universal threads that are particularly astonishing in this story and in so many other stories.
I did feel it would have universal appeal. I thought it would. I hoped it would have international appeal. But again my fear was—Obviously, it was a big thrill to be able to tell this piece of untold American history. But I did fear and I had people tell me at the beginning we know about COINTELPRO. How is this interesting? I had someone who is very high up at one of the networks tell me it’s just history. So, definitely there were those times, as an independent filmmaker seeking financing, it can be a little challenging.
I definitely felt that there was an audience out there for this story, but my big concern was that people would be like,oh yeah, forty years ago. It’s very quaint, very nice, potentially interesting but potentially not interesting at all. And then with the Snowden and Laura [Poitras] stuff happening that is extraordinary…
GOSZTOLA: You have Snowden and then you have Glenn [Greenwald], Laura [Poitras] and Barton [Gellman]. You have journalists who were in the same position as Betty [Medsger]. And that changes everything for you. It’s probably a lot easier if you are a producer because you can sell the film now.
HAMILTON: Yes, although to be honest the film was already made by the time the Snowden revelations happened, thankfully. I was almost at the end of the editing process, which was really a blessing. For a brief moment, we contemplated what do we do. We’re faced now at this crossroads, but I knew that I had Laura as one of my team and I knew her film was coming so in an ideal world perhaps our films live as companions to one another. So, we thought about it for a millisecond, whether or not to go down the road of Snowden. But there was Laura so there was no point.
The larger overarching thing was to what extent—We wrestled with this throughout the process because we had inklings of this in the four years that we were making the film. I think it was in 2011 the raids on the environmental groups and animal rights groups throughout the Midwest and in Pennsylvania. It was so reminiscent. I remember Brian Williams on the evening news being this is reminiscent of the ‘70s. It was quite extraordinary so there were these moments so we had these hesitations in the editing room as to what degree to we seize upon this and we definitely cut together scenes that had much more contemporary [archival footage] like the scenes I just described.
In the end, we decided not to and decided to let it live more as an under current. And that’s a choice. The choice is in the documentary and story telling, which are endless. So in the end it was a choice I made, and I think it is the right choice. I think some people will complain that I should have hit the contemporary angle more. Hopefully, it will live as a very powerful story, but perhaps as an allegory as well.
GOSZTOLA: I wanted to have you talk about using actors to dramatize and reenact what happened. Can you talk about that choice?
HAMILTON: Yes, it’s a slightly controversial choice. I realize that. It’s not an easy choice. I think my strong feeling was that there was nothing that existed from the time and if I didn’t go that route was this then a short film.
There was always the enormous political ramifications that happened, but in the absence of them describing—Such a large part of the story is the actual heist, how they did what they did, what persuaded to do what they do and how they pulled it off. It’s just extraordinary, and the fact that they evaded the FBI all these years.
Very quickly, I decided that was what I wanted to do because I really did want the story to live in all its glory. And so then I sought Maureen Ryan, my recreations producer, who I think is at the top of her game and who co-produced Man on Wire and Project Nim and [had] done incredible work. I admired her a lot. I persuaded her to come on board with a miniscule budget and hopefully it works.
GOSZTOLA: It works. It definitely makes the movie a stronger film.
When you say Man on Wire, knowing that movie, I guess they are comparable in a way, but when I think about the story, it seems like you could give this to somebody at a Hollywood studio and they could easily de-politicize the story of people performing a heist on an FBI office. I guess these people who entrusted you with their story found someone they could trust and you really do keep that social justice perspective in the story.
HAMILTON: Really, I am so glad to hear you say that. Hopefully, we have preserved the huge political overtones and the moral and civic courage and the times. I mean, the upheaval that was going on in America at the time was just extraordinary and potentially something America has not gone through since. Perhaps, today it’s more undercover.
At the same time, I wanted to make it a more appealing film to a general audience so to have it be this thriller.
GOSZTOLA:I think to appreciate what risks they were taking it helps to see it play out on the screen. Because otherwise just to hear them talk…
HAMILTON: That’s right, and what’s remarkable about them is that they are so matter of fact. They’re different from Philippe Petit, for example, who is in Man on Wire, who is incredible, dramatic and everything he describes he can take you back in the moment, and they just they melded back into their ordinary lives after the heist. They were done. There’s no drama about them in that way. They did this unbelievable thing.
There’s a reason that they stayed underground. Someone could have easily bragged about it. I’m just astonished that Keith [Forsyth] or Bob [Williamson] didn’t brag about it to some future girlfriend. Something like that. There’s just sort of an absence of ego in all of them that is just sort of astonishing, but in this case was perhaps going to make for a slightly less dramatic film.
GOSZTOLA: It is very difficult when you look back 40 years to get anybody to put a defense to film, but you did find Terry Neist. Talk about having him be a part of the movie.
HAMILTON: It was really tricky. We were very careful about the story. We never went through the front door of the FBI to say that this is what we were doing. [Betty] never had in all the years of research that preceded the film, that went into the book. It was only at the tail end that we really engaged the FBI. We engaged the historian John Fox, Betty did. She tried to get on my behalf the crime scene pictures. And they couldn’t find them supposedly for eighteen months, and then literally as we closed the edit room he comes back and all of a sudden here are the crime pictures. He said they got misfiled. I was like, really?
I talked to Mike German (former FBI agent). I interviewed Mike because in the realm and the world of bringing it right up to the present, when I was thinking of making it more contemporary, he was wonderful. And he is a fantastic voice. He said some amazing things and he is incredibly knowledgeable, but again I didn’t go the contemporary route. So I was looking for people who lived it. I was looking for agents in the office, Media office, or people who had been very directly involved in the investigation.
Betty had been able to a man called Frank McLaughlin, who was the deputy in the office. Unfortunately, by the time the film started, he was too ill for me to interview.
I remember I was having coffee with Betty one day and lamenting the fact that there was nobody to talk to and what was to be done. She incredibly, sweetly, pulled out an old contact of hers from the Camden days and tracked down a junior agent in the Media office. [*Note: Hamilton requested this agent not be named.]
I phoned this junior FBI agent and he was wonderful. And he would have been fantastic on film because he was exactly a true blue FBI agent. You know saying these guys are criminals. They should be in jail. We had this great conversation and during the course of it he said, are you in touch with the people? What’s your scope? I said well it’s a very broad look at this unknown event, etc. I didn’t feel at that time I needed to give him the full story. And he very directly asked me if I knew the people and I said well I am talking to a lot of people.
He seemed persuaded and he said he wanted me to get approval from FBI headquarters in DC, which is not necessary for a retired FBI agent. Really not necessary, but he did because he’s that kind of guy. And he called me back with their number so he was seemingly initially enthusiastic and then Betty and I sort of got a little scared by this question and so we felt that we should lay off for a little while. By the time I eventually went back to him, he decided he didn’t want to go on camera, which is terribly, terribly, terribly disappointing.
So, Neist came to me through Sam Green, who made [documentary] The Weather Underground. A long time later Sam became interested through making The Weather Underground in Media and went and did a couple of interviews on his own [for] a few years like in the mid-2000s, including Terry Neist. And so I knew this and so Sam loaned me his material. That interview was actually done by Sam, which he loaned me for the film.
Neil Welch, who is on the tape recorder, who is also wonderful. He wasn’t though directly involved in the investigation. I hesitated to interview him. I had a tiny, tiny bit of hesitation about his memory and how accurate it was going to be. Low budget, I thought. Thankfully, Betty’s tapes still existed and that tape had been twenty years prior.
GOSZTOLA: At the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, was it the first time the subjects had seen the film?
HAMILTON: No, I showed John, Bonnie, Keith and David Kairys the film last June when we were at the very tail end of editing because I wanted to make sure that everything was factually accurate. There was one piece of archival footage which somebody was seeing that was particularly problematic so I am very glad that I was able to run that by them. And I was very trepidatious about them seeing it, but the film ended, they were like—Keith [said] good job. Very matter of fact.
GOSZTOLA: Generally, what would you like the impact of this film to be on viewers? On its own, it could be inspiring to a new generation of people. On a more personal and specific level, I know Snowden has found it rather profound to see these people come forward. So, it probably means a lot to him that this story is going to be told to a lot of people here in the US.
HAMILTON: Yeah, and I have been struck by the very sort of informal kinship, which I think is very nice. They feel very strongly that he should be allowed to come back and shouldn’t spend decades behind bars.
I really do hope that it has cross-generational appeal. I am hoping it does. I trust that it does. Judging by the people who are following us on Twitter, it is having [cross-generational appeal], which I am thrilled by.
I think the takeaway is hopefully an inspirational story—regardless if you strip away everything else—an inspirational story of what it means to be an engaged citizen in a democracy and we need government accountability, transparency, etc, etc, across the board.
And with the Snowden revelations, I think the film is poised to insert itself in the national conversation in a way that it never could have four years ago so in a new and potentially powerful but safe.
It’s like Keith was saying [at the world premiere] it’s easy to see people in action forty years ago and a bunch of septuagenarians no longer as radicals whereas had they been arrested at the time—Hoover wanted to charge them with espionage.
GOSZTOLA: It strikes me as in today’s world that if you were thinking about this story they actually might be more comparable to a group of hackers. Like, if you found a group of idealistic young people, who knew how to use technology and decided to pick a virtual target, that could be the direct analogy for their story.
HAMILTON: I think that’s true. I think that’s right. I do view them as the analog version. They really are.
The film is currently playing at film festivals. It will eventually air on PBS. For more information on the film, here is the website.