Herald Sun: ‘1971’ is a piece of history and a thriller

by Cliff Bellamy


In 1971, long hair and other outward signs of the political spirit of the 1960s had become mainstream. Opposition to the Vietnam War remained strong, and that year, a group of eight citizens living in and around Philadelphia who were anti-war activists staged a well-planned break-in of an FBI field office in nearby Media, Pennsylvania.

They stole files from the office, and what they found confirmed what many in the protest movement (known at the time as the New Left) suspected: That the FBI was spying on U.S. citizens involved in these groups, and using “dirty tricks” to infiltrate and disrupt their work. The burglars called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and decided that the best way to confront the FBI’s tactics was to mail copies of the documents to national newspapers. The release of the documents led to the Church Committee hearings of 1975, the first congressional investigation of intelligence agencies, and the first guidelines limiting FBI powers.

There were originally nine members of the Citizens Commission, but one individual dropped out. The FBI never found or charged the eight burglars, who have never talked about the burglary until director Johanna Hamilton’s documentary, “1971.” For the first time, the known members of the group (the filmmaker in the credits states that she does not know the names of the other three participants) are interviewed and tell their stories: Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raines, Bob Williamson, and Bill Davidon, the group’s de facto leader (who died before release of the film).

Hamilton (who got a Full Frame Garrett Scott Grant to help make the film) has given viewers not just a breakthrough piece of history, but one heck of a suspense thriller. The filmmaker uses actors to portray the crucial scenes of the burglary – everything from Bonnie Raines’ posing as a college student seeking career advice to help scout out the building, to Forsyth’s nerve-wracking efforts to gain entry into an office blocked by a filing cabinet. (There is some humor in that scene: While Forsyth is breaking in, the building manager is sitting in the basement watching the Ali-Frazier fight on TV.) Hamilton uses news footage, archival footage, and home movies of some of the subjects. She also interviews former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, the first reporter to receive and write about the files, and former NBC reporter Carl Stern, who sued the Justice Department to get more of the secret files about the operation called COINTELPRO.

The members of this commission had lives, jobs and in the case of the Raineses, children, and took considerable risks. You may have conflicting feelings about this burglary, but Hamilton’s film also asks us to imagine what the consequences might be had they not taken this risk.

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Indiewire: Michael Moore Wants The World To Watch ‘1971’ Today

August 1, 2014

Academy Award-winning documentarian Michael Moore is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Traverse City Film Festival today with a worldwide screening of one of his favorite documentaries of the year, Johanna Hamilton’s “1971.” In July, Moore enlisted the help of his Facebook friends and Twitter followers to find venues around the world that would participate in this global event, which includes not only a screening of the documentary but also a live discussion and Q&A with the filmmakers and subjects of the film. The event takes place today at 3pm and includes theaters in England, Australia, Norway, China, Australia and Malawi.

For Moore, who founded the TCFF in 2005 in order to create a festival by a filmmaker for filmmakers, the purpose behind the multiple continent screening is, in his own words, “To take the TC Film Fest beyond its borders and see what kind of global village we can create around watching a great, thought-provoking and discussion-stimulating movie.” In addition to the screening and Q&A session, audiences in participating theaters will be able to see and hear one another as they settle in to watch the movie.

Directed by Hamilton (“Pray The Devil Back to Hell”) and executive produced by Academy-Award nominee Laura Poitras (“My Country, My Country”), “1971” is the true story of a brave group of ordinary citizens who risked their lives to expose the massive, unlawful surveillance program by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at the height of the Vietnam War.

Combining reenactments and archival footage, “1971” is about “The Citizen’s Committee to Investigate the FBI,” who confess on camera for the first time ever to breaking into the FBI field office, confiscating thousands of secret files and leaking them to the press. Told like a riveting heist movie, the documentary reveals a large-scale FBI spying operation of political activists and civil rights leaders known as COINTELPRO. Cargo Releasing nabbed global distribution rights to “1971” following its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.

The idea is quite ambitious, but it follows in the footsteps of another groundbreaking announcement at the festival. At the opening night gala of the TCFF on July 29th, Moore gave a quarter of a million dollars to the festival, an amount that represents the remaining earnings from his first movie, “Roger & Me.” “I wanted to do something special, something big to honor all the good over the years that has resulted from my first film,” said Moore. “This donation will be used specifically to address the lack of access across most of the country for people who want to go to a movie theater and see a foreign film or a documentary.”

The Traverse City Film Festival runs through August 3rd.

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Wisconsin Public Radio: An FBI break-in that rocked the nation

We head back in time now, to the evening of March 8th, 1971. The night 8 young Vietnam war protestors broke into their local FBI office – in Media, PA – and stole top-secret documents that would rock the nation.

Guest(s): Bonnie and John Raines

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On March 8, 1971, a group of eight political activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and removed every file from the room. The documents contained evidence of the federal government’s secret efforts to spy on its own people—a revelation that, when it became public, led to the first-ever Congressional investigation into an American intelligence agency.

The activists were never caught.

Now, 43 years later, the men and women who carried out the crime—the self-titled Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—have publicly revealed themselves for the first time in director Johanna Hamilton’s fine new documentary, 1971. The film explores the planning, execution, and impact of the Media break-in from the perspective of the activists: the university professor who led the group, the wife and mother who posed as a journalist to case the inside of the office, and the college dropout who picked the locks. The fast-paced plot unfolds dramatically and brings the viewer face to face with a question that has never been more important than it is today: What risks are worth taking in order to expose abuse of government power?
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The Credits: 2014 Tribeca Film Festival at a Glance

“Calling themselves ‘The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,’ this group of “ordinary Americans” broke into the FBI office on March 8 while the rest of the country was watching the ‘Fight of the Century’ between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. What they discovered would effect the way the country understood government surveillance forever—at the height of the Vietnam war, the FBI was conducting a highly classified civilian surveillance program called COINTELPRO, overseen by J. Edgar Hoover. In our current age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Hamilton’s doc couldn’t be more timely.”
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Forbes: Film About 1971 FBI Break-in Traces Path To Snowden And Wikileaks

“Reaction to the film at Tribeca has been effusive, both from audiences and critics. At the first screening…the thunderous ovations for the…subjects of the film were extraordinary.”

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Deftly tracing the skullduggery of the mission and the Committee member’s need to keep quiet about it afterward, as well as the impact of the find itself, 1971 crafts a thrilling lesson about how authoritarianism can be curbed, sometimes, by one simple and well-targeted blow. To that last point, the film also underlines the importance of the source, an unlikely coalition of activists. One of the couples at the center of the group had several children, whom they worried about abandoning if they were sent to prison. But as former Freedom Rider John Raines notes in one of his many sage observations, people with children to worry cannot use that as an excuse not to act. Otherwise, he suggests, nothing would ever be done.

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Hollywood Reporter: 1971 Tribeca Review

“They stayed anonymous longer than Deep Throat: eight activists who broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office in 1971 and stole records proving the government was actively targeting groups that disagreed with U.S. policies — including some, like Women’s Liberation groups, whose activities weren’t remotely threatening to break the law. Building on research in a new book by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971 introduces five of these fugitive patriots to a generation busy debating the leaks of Edward Snowden. Exciting and enlightening, the still-timely film ranks with docs like The Weather Underground in its evocation of a more politically engaged era; it deserves big-screen exposure and should fare well in the nonfiction arena, though distributors may insist on a new title that would offer some sense of its subject matter.”
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Indiewire: Incendiary Political Documentary ‘1971’

Hamilton’s directing style is ultimately straightforward, with an avoidance on getting too involved in the story. Such an approach is a subtle call to arms, with the film ultimately punctuated by an on-text crawl talking about the Patriot Act. Her film is not celebratory, lingering on the notion that, with the public charade of COINTELPRO, ultimately the FBI won. While their post-break-in behaviors are mocked, the government credits itself with tactics specifically utilized to “enhance the paranoia,” creating a culture of fear that still exists today. Hamilton is announcing the immediacy right off the bat: “1971” could have been any year. “1971” should be every year.
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