Thursday night, September 25, marked the start of the fifteen day Milwaukee Film Festival. In keeping with festival tradition, one film screened as the special Opening Night Film, with the Opening Night Party to follow. Past years have typically featured a mainstream foreign comedy that only showed the first night. This year brought some changes with “1971,” a political documentary that will run again today, the 27th, at The Oriental Theater.
“1971” is the little known story of how a group of eight people broke into an FBI office to steal and expose confidential documents. While this group, The Citizens’ Commission, expected to find proof of illegal FBI activity, they had no idea that they would find documents exposing the violation of first Amendment rights against law abiding citizens and peaceful organizations.
The actions of these eight individuals not only led to a public exposure of criminal activity after they released the documents to the newspapers, but to the eventual subdued power of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The thieves were never caught and, over 40 years later, they are ready to come forward with their story via “1971.”
While this is an unusual selection for the Opening Night Film, it brings to mind past Milwaukee Film Festival selections such as 2012’s “Imposter” and it’s refreshing to see an important issue come to light in such a mainstream setting. But regardless of your interest in the plot, the style and structure of this documentary is fascinating in itself. A combination of subject interviews, news footage, television clips, and reenactments serve to create a unique, exciting visual experience of a truly suspenseful story.
While the majority of the film is quite suspenseful and captures the tension felt by the subjects at the time of the robbery, it becomes drier and begins to drag on towards the end. The rise in climax to the robbery itself is very suspenseful, and the film manages to hold onto that excitement into the aftermath, but not for long. While the concluding information is interesting and important to the story, it’s hard to imagine it holding everyone’s attention.
A Q&A session followed the screening, where director Johanna Hamilton, film subjects and Citizens’ Commission members Bonnie and John Raines, film subject and Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger, and film subject and FBI expert Athan Theoharis answered questions from both the festival’s Executive/Artistic Director Jonathan Jackson and audience members. This group of individuals brought a well-rounded perspective into the actual events, from an analytical view into the FBI to a fervid oration on the current prevalence of similar issues.
“1971” undoubtedly brought a very real and intriguing issue to light amidst a large audience, and while it may not have been what everyone had hoped for compared to past years, few left unimpressed with the work. Hamilton’s documentary will screen at The Oriental Theater again today, Sept. 27, at 1:45 p.m.