Sundance ’14: Laura Poitras backs FBI break-in doc

Doc-maker Laura Poitras (pictured) has thrown her support behind a new documentary looking at a group of citizens whose theft of top-secret FBI documents in 1971 helped end a controversial surveillance program.
January 20, 2014

Doc-maker Laura Poitras (pictured) has thrown her support behind a new documentary looking at group of citizens whose theft of top-secret FBI documents in 1971 helped end one of the agency’s controversial surveillance programs.

The film, which is in production and is entitled 1971, is being made by producer-director Johanna Hamilton (Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and is being shopped here at Sundance by Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun.

It already has the support of ITVS, the Ford Foundation’s Just Films, and PBS’s doc strand ‘Independent Lens.’

The doc focuses on a group of ordinary citizens who, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, decided on March 8, 1971 to break into a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

The heist saw them taking every file in the office and sending them to U.S. newspapers. The publications of those documents exposed the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program, and led to the country’s first Congressional investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies.

For 43 years, the citizens were never caught. However, earlier this month, they made a decision to out themselves in a New York Times article. Now the filmmakers behind 1971 – which has been in the works for more than two years but has been shrouded in secrecy – are beginning to unveil details about the film, which will include re-creations and testimony from the burglars who carried out the break-in.

The addition of The Oath director Poitras – in the news recently for helping break the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA disclosures – and the parallels to the current debate over whistle-blowing should significantly raise the profile of the film, which is set to launch at an as-yet-undisclosed film festival later this year.

“Given the secrecy behind this entire project for the past few years, I have really come to appreciate the strength of our film team at a level I never even expected,” Hamilton told realscreen.

“It has been a privilege to have such an experienced producing team working with me. Award-winning producers Marilyn Ness and Katy Chevigny [E-Team] have been incredible assets, as has executive producer Julie Goldman, who has been behind so many high profile films. And it has been a joy to reunite with Abby Disney and Gini Reticker from Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

“Laura Poitras, who is an incredible filmmaker and successful producer, has given us tremendous support and recently joined as co-executive producer,” she added, “and Candescent Films’ Lilly Hartley has given us a huge boost. It feels like the dream team.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.