1971 Followup: A Conversation with Laura Poitras and Betty Medsger

Laura Poitras won an Academy Award for CitizenFour, her film about Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to the mainstream media and is now living in exile abroad. Betty Medsger wrote the book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and was a reporter at The Washington Post who first received the COINTELPRO files from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. Medsger and Poitras are both important parts of Johanna Hamilton’s film 1971, which just premiered on Independent Lens: Medsger is featured in the film while Poitras was an executive producer. In a video exclusive for Independent Lens, Hamilton sat down for a conversation with both women, about protecting sources, the impact the Snowden revelations had on Medsger’s book, and things that shocked them about the 1971 story.

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Johanna Hamilton Goes Back to 1971 to Find Burglars Who Revealed Illegal FBI Spying

'1971' filmmaker Johanna Hamilton in outdoor pic  in front of trees

1971 filmmaker Johanna Hamilton; photo by Diana Matar

1971: A year before the Watergate scandal sent shockwaves through the United States, with no end in sight to the Vietnam War, and anti-war protests intensifying. In that same year a group of ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. What they discovered shocked them.

Long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, these activist-burglars exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal surveillance program that involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans. For forty years the burglars kept their identities secret, but in Johanna Hamilton’s new film 1971, these previously anonymous Americans publicly tell their story for the first time.

With the film premiering on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, May 18 at 10 pm [check local listings], Hamilton took the time to talk to us about how she approached telling this story on film, and its resonance with the more recent Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations.
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Nine Movies about American Radicals

From the film 1971, citizen activists planning their break-in

From the film 1971

By Noel Murray

There’s something deeply and inherently provocative in movies that tell stories about open rebellion against the United States government, because they force us to think harder about what it really means to be a good citizen. Are radicals traitors, heroes, or something in-between? Can we even judge them until enough time has passed to know whether they were right or wrong? After all, if the American Revolution had gone another way, the tales we tell about Paul Revere and George Washington would have a decidedly different spin.

Johanna Hamilton’s documentary 1971 (airing on PBS this Monday, May 18 — check local listings) is about an activist group that once undercut the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country by raiding a Pennsylvania FBI office, and then disseminating the embarrassing classified files they found there. Though the title refers to the year the robbery took place, the film’s clear message is that the issues of government spying and secrecy — and whether citizens have the right to force accountability by any means necessary — are as relevant and controversial now as they were 44 years ago.

Like 1971, the nine fiction and nonfiction features below also deal with people and organizations who’ve defied the status quo — sometimes questionably, and sometimes in ways that today seem more noble than dangerous. Continue reading

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1971 Pop Quiz

The acclaimed film 1971 airs on Independent Lens on PBS next Monday, May 18 [check local listings]. But first, test yourself on all things 1971, from music to sports, politics to TV, with our new quiz. You don’t have to have been alive in 1971 to take a stab at this one (though it will probably help you in a few places). Give it a try and let us know how you did!

[Or click here >>]

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Filmmaker “Flies” with Elizabeth Streb, Extreme Action Architect

Born to Fly filmmaker Catherine Gund

Born to Fly filmmaker Catherine Gund

As the subject of her new film Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, New York-based filmmaker Catherine Gund found one of the more dynamic artistic minds in a city not lacking for great art (Streb is a recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award). In over 30 years of practice, choreographer Streb – sometimes called “the Evel Knievel of dance”– has pioneered a movement form called “POPACTION,” which she describes as “a mixture of slam dancing, exquisite and amazing human flight, and a wild action sport.” The film was called “beautiful, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable” by TVFirstLook.com. And:

“What does it say about the state of Hollywood action filmmaking that this year’s most dashing derring-do transpires in a doc about a choreographer?” (Village Voice)

Gund previously made What’s on Your Plate?, a critically-acclaimed multimedia project about kids and food politics; the Independent Lens films Motherland Afghanistan and A Touch of Greatness (nominated for an Emmy); and Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance. She also co-founded the Third Wave Foundation, which targets grants and programs to young women between 15 and 30. Gund took time out from her busy schedule to talk to us about Born to Fly, which premieres tonight on Independent Lens on PBS at 10 pm [check local listings], including how she hope the film will inspire others and on her work with the great Albert Maysles.

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Action Heroes of Dance: They Were Born to Fly

STREB’s Samantha Jakus runs down the side of Bergdorf Goodman. Photo Courtesy Bergdorf Goodman.

STREB’s Samantha Jakus runs down the side of Bergdorf Goodman Building in NYC. Photo Courtesy Bergdorf Goodman.

In the film Born to Fly, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS this coming Monday May 11 at 10 pm [check local listings], we meet not only the one-of-a-kind “extreme action architect,” choreographer Elizabeth Streb, but also several members of her dance troupe. One has to be a tough cookie inside and out to brave Streb’s physically challenging, risky routines.

Two of those featured players took a time out from running, dancing, ducking, falling and spinning, to talk to us about life in this unusual dance company.

Samantha “Sammy” Jakus, from Philadelphia, would call her journey a true Rocky story. She has trained in dance, tumbling, circus, and by wrestling with her three brothers. Exploring the body’s physical limits through movement has led her to STREB.

Cassandre “Cassy” Joseph, born and raised in Brooklyn, began training in artistic gymnastics at the age of four. Her career as a gymnast spanned 18 years, during which she earned several state, regional, and national titles. Then, like Jakus, she found at STREB an avenue for further pursuit of extreme movement. Continue reading

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Art on the Edge: Extreme Dance, Performance, and More

a male dancer ducks while on a moving mat in a dancer by Elizabeth Streb in Born to Fly

A Streb Company dancer, seen in Born to Fly

On May 11, Independent Lens presents Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, a film about “extreme action architect” Elizabeth Streb, who was once called the “Evel Knievel of dance.” Her choreography, which she calls POPACTION, “intertwines the disciplines of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus, and Hollywood stunt-work,” and her dancers are often required to perform physically punishing maneuvers.

To get you in the mood as we approach the film’s PBS premiere, we’ve collected some other examples of “extreme” performance and visual art, some even more out there than Streb’s work.

We had to bypass posting some of the interesting stuff we found — it was just too intensely extreme. But still, a word of caution: a few of the items we are posting here may still be too intense for some viewers, and there may be some nudity (though nothing too explicit). Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

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Telling the Story of Kumu Hina

filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, with Kumu Hina and student

Filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, with Kumu Hina and student Ho’onani

Kumu Hina, which won the Frameline Jury Award for Achievement in Documentary, was called “a subtle but inspiring tale” by Alice Lytton in IndieWire. “This is a film which could, if given the chance, push people both within and without the LGBT community to question not only their assumptions but also their language.”

The film is an intimate portrait of Hina, a mahu (transgender) woman and cultural legend in Hawaii who teaches Hawaiian language, history, and culture. She finds a surprising candidate to lead her school’s all-male hula troupe: Ho’onani, a sixth grader who is proud to be seen as a mixture of boy and girl. As Kumu (teacher) Hina helps Ho’onani negotiate the mixed reactions of her classmates and her family, the power of culture to instill a sense of pride and acceptance becomes clear.

We spoke with Hawaii-based filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson about how they first came across Hina, what younger generations can learn from this story, and things that surprised them while making the film. Kuma Hina premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, May 4, at 10pm (check local listings).

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Hawaiian Music: More Than Just Hula (But Also Hula)

Hina performing with some of her students, from Kumu Hina

Hina performing with some of her students, from Kumu Hina

In tandem with the upcoming PBS premiere of Kumu Hina, we created this Spotify playlist compiling some of the greatest Hawaiian music, from Hula to slack guitar, ukulele, and beyond. And yes, we also couldn’t resist tossing in a standard at the end, while finding inspiration for some of the other choices via Hawaii Magazine, Honolulu Magazine, King’s Hawaiian, and our friends, readers, and viewers from Hawaii.

Kumu Hina tells the captivating story of a native Hawaiian mahu (transgender) teacher who uses traditional culture to inspire a student to lead the school’s all-male hula troupe. The film reveals a side of paradise rarely seen on screen, and airs on Independent Lens on PBS Monday night May 4 at 10 pm (check local listings).

To accompany the playlist, here’s a collection of tracks and videos to further get you in a Hawaiian state of mind, and have your own personal kanikapila (music jam) in your home.

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After the Storm: Interactive Documentary Launches on Anniversary of Alabama Tornado Disaster


On April 27, 2011, a powerful storm system unleashed a deadly series of tornadoes across central Alabama that devastated several cities. The largest tornado, which was categorized an F4, ripped through the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, area with winds up to 260 miles per hour, traveling over a distance of 80 miles, with a path of destruction up to 1.5 miles wide. When it was over, the tornado had killed 64 people and injured more than 1,500.

Alabama-based documentary filmmaker and teacher Andrew Beck Grace survived the storm, and as he discovered in the days to come, numbers and adjectives — even images — only go so far in describing what it means to wake up to your world completely rearranged.

Grace has produced a unique interactive documentary about the aftermath in Tuscaloosa called After the Storm. It tells the story of what happens after the storm passes, after the media leaves town, and after the adrenaline subsides. Independent Lens is proud to co-present this interactive documentary with The Washington Post, launching today (April 27) on the 4th anniversary of the storm.

After you immerse yourself in After the Storm, read the following interview we conducted with Grace about producing this unique work, one which hit very close to home. Continue reading

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