‘Secret FBI’ project took careful research and interview skills.
UK-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Johanna Hamilton says she knew years ago a book her friend and former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger was hard at work on, would make an amazing story.
But - since that book was about eight people who had broken into an FBI office, sparking a massive manhunt that never turned them up - the time wasn’t right. And it wasn’t clear it ever would be.
That book was Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, released in January, 2014 by Random House. And now the film 1971 had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“She is a protagonist in this story herself… I knew the outline of the story and said, “when you are ready to make a film let me know.”
Not until about four and a half years ago when Hamilton learned the subjects were beginning to “feel amenable to a film” could she get to work.
Hamilton described her debut documentary feature as an “improbable heist movie,” in which “ordinary people train themselves to be burglars and pull it off… breaking into an F.B.I. office on a hunch they had about surveillance and the FBI’s breaking (US citizens’) first amendment rights, and they were right.”
Medgser received the trove of documents from the group in after their March 8, 1971 break-in. When published, they immediately stripped the FBI of their revered status and ultimately set up The Washington Post for becoming the recipient of The Pentagon Papers, and for Watergate.
In Hamilton’s film she shows the era with meticulous detail and research, nostalgic recreations, news reels and interviews with five of the eight original self-named “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI,” who give their first on camera interviews ever.
“There was no fall out (from the film) but we were very nervous,” Hamilton explains. “The statue of limitations was five years, in 1976 the FBI closed the case…. But we were never one hundred percent sure. Betty and I were cautious.”
The film has several astonishing moments, juxtaposing the idyllic lives these individuals, with a political activism for which they risked spending their lives in prison.
Hamilton manages to recapture the seemingly innocent times in many ways: one of the group learned to pick locks through a mail order correspondence course, the ease with which one female member of the group cased the FBI office under the guise of interviewing the FBI office chief about opportunities for women for her college newspaper, without being checked out or even signed in.
The fact that group was never caught, sparked a massive FBI investigation producing some 34,000 documents: a hugely embarrassing fiasco for then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
More importantly, documents taken from the break offered proof, for the first time ever, the U.S. was spying on its own citizens. It also led to revelations of Hoover’s illegal counter intelligence program code named COINTELPRO, which had far-reaching ramifications as the film explains.
While working with Medgser, Hamilton, even received file encryption advice from Laura Poitras — one of the journalists along with Glenn Greenwald who received Edward Snowden’s NSA documents in 2013 — and who co executive produces 1971.
The production team for 1971 is a roster of named documentary filmmakers. In addition to Poitras, Julie Goldman (We Are The Giant), Abigail Disney (Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which Hamilton co-produced) and Gini Reticker (Academy Award nominee for the short Asylum) while Maureen Ryan (producer, Man On A Wire) managed the re-creations. Gabriel Rhodes edits, (Tillman Story, Control Room). Sales are handled by Submarine and US broadcast rights were picked up by Independent Lens.
“It’s an allegory for today. We are in that same place. What does it mean to be an engaged citizen? I get a chill inside when I consider what they risked,” Hamilton says. “Eras are not directly analogous and this generated a national conversation. [Edward] Snowden has done that too. People will draw their own inferences…. I hope that is the conversation as the lights go up.”
How did Betty find out the burglars’ identities?
Two of them revealed themselves to her almost by accident…they knew her 20 years before. She had been a reporter in Philadelphia… they ‘picked’ her. At a dinner with her one night, they said, “Hey Betty, we had some important documents…. That was us.”
What worries did you have about the burglars getting in trouble now because of Betty’s book and your film?
I was very analog and had no website. Nothing online, no Kickstarter campaign. I stayed off Google. With Betty we came up with numbers for the burglars and didn’t ever name them and didn’t email transcripts. It was an imperfect system. But with Laura (Poitras), we also learned to encrypt our drives.
Did you work together or separately on your projects?
We worked in tandem but separately -she used some of the interviews from the doc for her book. I used details (from the book) for the film. She came on for the interviews
How did you finance such a secretive project?
It was independently financed, mostly by non-profits. The Sundance Documentary fund, the Open Society Institute, the biggest funder was the independent television service that’s specifically geared to independent filmmakers and channels programming to PBS.
What did the so-called Media files do for The Washington Post?
It made Katherine Graham more courageous. (Publishing) The Pentagon Papers June 1971 - the Ellsberg Papers, was easier. The media papers decision had to be made over night and … she has the Attorney General three times saying ‘you are going to publish national security issues,’ and she also went against the legal advice of the Post. It ran the next day then all other papers took her lead - they uncovered the other side of the FBI.
How did you get started in documentary film?
I moved to South Africa at the first all race elections in 1994- I wanted to be a journalist and everything was open and accessible and I started off as a researcher. …then [I started] to look for projects to develop on my own.
You co-produced Gini Reticker’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about a group of women who demanded peace in their country, Liberia.
After that film, Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Price. It attests to the power of film, no one would have known about her work.