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Tribeca FF 2014 Films, On Your Radar: 1971
by Karen Pecota

A film by Johanna Hamilton. A docudrama reenactment of True Events. 1971.

In her documentary film 1971, Hamilton brings to light a forty-year-old story of silence. A thrilling narrative charged with emotion, shock and revelation of how eight concerned citizens broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. They successfully confiscate hundreds of secret FBI files that documented illegal spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Their goal to expose the illegal activity and notify the public without getting caught was successfully executed. Hamilton's 1971 is their story. And, they explain why, after forty years, they have decided to break their silence.

The group of eight activists who called themselves the Citizen's Commission to Investigate the FBI, reveal the simplicity of their heist though dangerous and morally unconscionable. The heist made an impact in that it brought to light an illegal program overseen by lifelong FBI director J.Edgar Hoover known as COINTELPRO - the Counter Intelligence Program. After a big legal battle, over 50,000 pages of documents surfaced explaining the scope of the program and the FBI's dirty laundry. The Church Committee is formed which is the very first congressional investigation into American intelligence agencies--restricting surveillance power of intelligence agencies.

On the night of the so called "Fight of the Century" (boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier) the burglary began when the lock to the small FBI field office in Media was picked by a commission member. The open door allowed the activists to take every file in the office, dump them in suitcases and walk out the front door of the FBI building. Hamilton's reenactment of this silent caper visualizes the careful detail necessary for its success. Cleverly masterminded.

The citizen's commission was comprised of these types of ordinary young people who came together during the 1970 anti-war movement in Philadelphia: John and Bonnie Raines, a couple with small children--Bonnie was the one who gathered the intel of the documents and John drove the getaway car; Bill Davidon (the mastermind to investigate the FBI) a Haverford College Physics Professor and anti-war activist; Keith Forsyth, a cab driver was the locksmith picker during the burglary. Bob Williamson was a social worker and the comedian for the group. These five above were all highly educated and extremely successful in their chosen occupations.

There were two professionals the commission used to further their cause: Journalist, Betty Medsger and civil rights lawyer, David Kairys. Betty was one of five people who received the first copies of Media FBI files distributed anonymously by the Citizen's Commission to Investigate the FBI. She was the first reporter to write about content of the Media files. She is the author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI published in 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf. Kairys a professor of constitutional law at Temple Law School, is a leading constitutional scholar and civil rights lawyer. He has represented the Citizen's Commission to investigate the FBI in secret for over 40 years. His latest book is Philadelphia Freedom, Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer (2008).

Hamilton creatively uses interviews, original documentation, reenactments in partial black and white film footage. She sets the mood for the audience to realize what the 70s era offered to make such a heist possible. The people behind the burglary of one of the country’s largest investigations have never been found out. The FBI never solved the mystery of the break-in. Their mission was successfully accomplished because they were not looking for spotlight notoriety. This fact allowed them to return to their normal lives. To slip back into society unnoticed.

"My hope in telling this story for the first time is that it will deepen the meaning and impact of the actions taken by The Citizen's Commission - a band of suburban parents, university professors and community leaders." Hamilton knows that their story will encourage and inspire people to think about what it means to be an engaged citizen, our relevance of nonviolent civil disobedience and how vigilance is needed to uphold democracy.

Hamilton concludes, "I don't think the film could come at a better time. We are in the midst of the biggest public debate about the civil liberties and privacy since 9/11. I am thrilled 1971 will add a unique and entertaining perspective (this is a heist story after all) to this important and evolving public discussion."