We are at that epoch in time when the hippies of the 1960’s and ‘70s can look back and say “well back in our day”. It’s a tricky thing, looking back. Memory tints everything with a slightly rosy tint, making it look just that little bit “better”. But the group of “hippies” we meet in 1971 may actually have a point as far as how “badass” activism was back in their day. Then again, these aren’t ordinary folks. These people are the authors of one of the great historic activist “events” in American history. It affected the way the FBI and other agencies would work from then on. Boys and girls, if you thought Edward Snowden was a revelation, think again. Snowden is merely the latest in a line of people committed to exposing unlawful practices in the high echelons. Before Snowden, as the film says, there was 1971, or more specifically, The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI.
Of course back in the day, neither the internet, nor computers were much of a “thing”. Files were actual files of paper and ink, kept in filing cabinets.. So, on the night of the famous “Fight of the Century” (between Muhammed Ali and Joe Fraser) in 1971, a group of activists broke into a small FBI field office and were able to physically remove every single file. Soon, documents pertaining to many things, but not least among them, J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious Counter Intelligence program, began to flood newsrooms anonymously. The storm was only just beginning…
Technically, the documentary is very well executed but overall nothing we haven’t seen before. A combination of interviews, re-enactments and primary documents from the event are skilfully combined to tell a story that would not have felt out of place as the plot of a spy thriller. But then again, if you are watching 1971, chances are it’s not for the special effects. The star of this little number is the story.
First of all, without shadow of a doubt, this event cracked open one of the biggest scandals in American history. The fallout would continue for years and after the Watergate scandal also surfaced, it became one of the keystones in the first congressional investigation into an American intelligence agency. This is history in the making. But it is also a sad testament to government and government agency wrong doing that spans over 40 years. What Edward Snowden revealed to the world was, without a doubt, scandalous, but sadly it is not new. And the documentary very successfully plunges us into that particular context and the atmosphere of the time; it enables us to draw parallels with events like the Snowden case. This is perhaps not surprising seeing as Laura Poitras, the director of Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour is the executive producer of this documentary. The two are most definitely make good companion pieces and I strongly suggest you endeavor to watch them together if at all possible.
One of the parallels I personally drew was how the event impacts the life of regular people. In Citizenfour, we watch Snowden watch himself on television and slowly realize his life will never, ever be the same again. In the same way we hear the testaments of the Citizens Committee – a young couple with young children, students, a college lecturer among them – hunker down for the fallout as the FBI “floods” the area with agents on a headhunt for them. On the one hand it is a strange sight to behold, these are the type of things we are used to seeing in works of fiction, in Hollywood. On the other, it is incredibly sad and a little frightening to see people being hounded by government agencies purely for doing what they thought to be right – namely exposing said government agency to be depriving a lot of American citizens from their First Amendment rights.
I personally watched 1971 with baited breath. It’s the kind of thing you find hard to believe it “actually” happened. It gives us a clear and concise snapshot of the history of an issue, a problem, that has been around for a while. But more than that, it is a testament to the fact that being “just an individual” does not mean you cannot make a difference. After all, back in ’71, eight regular people in a small town in the U.S. changed American history…
1971 will have a week-long theatrical release at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London starting June 5th as part of Bertha DocHouse Screen – www.dochouse.org/cinema/screenings.