Premiering Monday, May 18, on Independent Lens, 1971 is a suspenseful documentary with all the intrigue and tension of a classic heist movie. The film airs at 9 p.m. on NPT and has two Nashville connections: Producer Katy Chevigny recently relocated here and much of the archival footage used in the film was found through Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive.
While most people have heard of the Watergate break-in that eventually took down a president, it wasn’t the only significant Mid-Atlantic burglary in the early 1970s. On the night of March 8, 1971—as Muhammad Ali battled Joe Frazier in a much-anticipated bout—eight people broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Penn., and stealing every one of the agency’s files. The documents revealed that the F.B.I., then still led by J. Edgar Hoover, was engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens and was also attempting to infiltrate and/or discredit organizations involved with civil rights, women’s rights and other issues deemed problematic.
Calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the F.B.I., the burglars sent copies of their findings to members of Congress and the media; one recipient was Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. Though the Post reported on the documents and there eventually was a congressional hearing based on them, the Media, Penn., burglary never became part of the nation’s collective memory the way Watergate and other events of the turbulent late-1960s and early-1970s did.
This is partly because though the F.B.I. launched a massive manhunt, the people involved in the burglary were never caught—that was one aspect of the story that appealed to filmmaker Johanna Hamilton.
1971 is suspenseful and restrained, unfolding at a measured pace akin to that of All the Presidents Men, the 1976 film about the Watergate break-in. The film incorporates newsreel footage, contemporaneous photographs and interviews with the burglars.
“It’s such an improbable story,” Hamilton said by phone from her home in New York. “We were solving one of the last mysteries from that time.” Hamilton expressed interested in making a documentary about the break-in as soon as she heard about it from Medsger, who was researching a book on the story. “I said to her, please let me know when you’re ready to make the film,” Hamilton said. “About five years ago she phoned me up and we took it from there.”
One of the challenges Hamilton faced was how to make the story seem relevant and how to convey the drama of the incident and its aftermath. “On the one hand we wanted to telegraph the importance of the story up-front, but also we wanted to…have people a little bit on the edge of their seats throughout,” Hamilton explained. She also had to counter the absence of footage of the break-in, the planning sessions, etc., and chose to do so with reenactments (filmed by Maureen Ryan, whose work she admired on Man on a Wire).
“There’s still a little bit of a scoop element to” the film, producer Katy Chevigny said over coffee in Nashville recently. (Chevigny and her family relocated to Nashville this past February.)
“I’m so used to this film being shrouded in secrecy,” Chevigny said as she talked about how Hamilton revealed the project to her. “She said I’ve got this amazing story, it’s really secret; I can’t let anybody know about the film while I’m making it.” For Chevigny, who like Hamilton has long been interested in social justice, the film was irresistible. “I knew it was going to be good. You don’t always know that with a film,” Chevigny said, “but I was like, this is going to be good.”