Friday, March 20, 2015

CIFF: '1971' Offers Inside Look at Historic Heist


1971 uses filmed re-enactments to help tell the tale (photo courtesy of 1971).

Living in a time when a government contractor can steal 1.7 million documents from a computer and fly to Hong Kong with them, what happened in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, shows just how different our world has become in the past 44 years. 

As Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off for the "Fight of the Century" on that night in 1971, a crew of eight people broke into a small, suburban Philadelphia FBI office and made off with every document stored there. The file-folder-in-suitcase heist seems startlingly analog in these days of digital data. Even more surprising is how what started as an act of government disruption ended up revealing evidence of the FBI's far-reaching practices of spying on and intimidating U.S. citizens. 

Those who broke into the building that night were never caught and their identities remained a mystery for more than four decades. Johanna Hamilton's film 1971, a documentary that includes re-enactments and news footage from the time, tells the story with efficiency and style. It is fascinating not only because of how unbelievable this corner of U.S. history seems today, but because — for the first time — those responsible for the break-in step out from the shadows to tell what happened in their own words. 

The film works as both a dissection of a heist and a portrait of the people behind it. When you find out who they are and the reasons why they risked so much, the story becomes all the more engaging. 

1971 screens again at 12:20 p.m. on March 20 at Tower City Cinemas and at 2:15 p.m. on March 21 at the Akron Art Museum. For more information and a full Cleveland International Film Festival schedule, visit clevelandfilm.org.


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