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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: February 23, 2015

Can modern disillusionment be traced to one single night? Watch ‘1971’ at SPACE Gallery

Written by: Dennis Perkins

 

On March 8, 1971, eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, took hundreds of secret files, adn shared them with the public. In doing so, they uncovered the FBI's vast and illegal regine of spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

On March 8, 1971, eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, took hundreds of secret files, and shared them with the public. In doing so, they uncovered the FBI’s vast and illegal campaign of spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

Suspicion of the U.S. government is ingrained in us now. After decades of disillusioning revelations about abuses of power and scandal, that cynicism that our government is spying on us, lying to us, and, as a matter of course, betraying its stated ideals is just part of the makeup of all but the most willfully ignorant. The new documentary “1971,” playing on March 3 at SPACE Gallery makes the case that our modern disillusionment can be traced to one single night, and the actions of eight ordinary people.

On March 8th of that year, a group of activists broke into a small, unremarkable branch office of the FBI in Media, Pennsylvania. An assortment of young people who’d been involved in various protests against the Vietnam war (including destroying draft board files), the group was motivated by the shootings of student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State to escalate their activities. Seeing the telltale signs of FBI infiltration of dissenting groups, they settled on the FBI office in Media. They cased the office, made plans, and then broke in and stole as many documents as they could. If the American people were more trusting at the time, so, it seems, was the government – security was as elaborate as a locked door in an unguarded building. What the activists found in their hastily purloined haul of papers changed all that forever.

The film is told through a combination of exclusive interviews, rare primary documents from the break-in and investigation, national news coverage of the burglary and dramatic re-creations, the story of Citizens' Commission unfolds with haunting echoes to today's questions of privacy in the era of government surveillance.

The film is told through a combination of exclusive interviews, rare primary documents from the break-in and investigation, national news coverage of the burglary and dramatic re-creations, the story of Citizens’ Commission unfolds with haunting echoes to today’s questions of privacy in the era of government surveillance.

The activists were right about the domestic spying, but it was one word written on one document that, nearly overlooked, changed everything about how Americans viewed the FBI, if not the government itself. COINTELPRO was a secret, thoroughly illegal campaign to undermine political dissent in America. Using informants, lies, dirty tricks, and intimidation, the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, targeted those involved in the civil rights, women’s liberation, and labor movements, along with any groups or individuals Hoover felt violated his particularly narrow view of acceptable free speech. The stolen documents – published at first only by the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham – brought the first ever hearings on abuses in the intelligence community, and the first challenge to Hoover’s half-century rule of the FBI.

The film, in the hands of director Johanna Hamilton, uses present-day interviews, news footage, and reenactments to craft a brisk, suitably tense tale of the power and pitfalls of youthful idealism. The conspirators, who were never caught, tell their story in the film for the first time. A handful of ordinary-looking citizens of middle age and older, they relate their actions with varying degrees of pride and regret. There’s an undercurrent of privilege to their stories – for most, the Media caper was their last major engagement in activism before family and middle class comfort took precedence. (It is still encouraging to hear one of the matronly present-day conspirators express, “It nice to think that we could yank [Hoover’s] chain – because I really hated the man.”) Their vague goals in exposing the FBI’s illegal acts brought new transparency – for a time. As one says, late in the film, “At least it backed them off for a while…but that door was shut and we haven’t had a peek at it since.” As shown in the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary “Citizenfour,” (about another idealistic young person throwing open the doors on illegal government surveillance, regardless of consequence), there’s always a lot to be cynical about.

“1971”

WHERE: SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 3
TICKETS: $8, $6 for SPACE members
MORE: space538.org


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

GUTHRIE’S INDEPENDENT THEATER (LEWISTON)

Friday-Saturday: “2015 Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films.” Head up to this cozy “microcinema” to catch all of the live action shorts up for the big award this year. (Plus, the theater comes attached to Guthrie’s restaurant, so bring your appetite.)

BATES COLLEGE

Sunday: “Man From Oran.” Since you’ll be up in Lewiston anyway, why not head over to Bates’ Pettingill Hall to catch this, the latest film from acclaimed Algerian director Lyes Salem. The story of two friends navigating the aftermath of the Algerian independence movement, the film will be accompanied by Salem’s 2004 short film “Cousines,” and will be presented by the director himself.

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