Still from "1971"
Still from "1971"

Johanna Hamilton has most recently co-produced Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008 and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. She has produced nonfiction programs for PBS, The History Channel, National Geographic, A&E, Discovery Channel, and The Washington Post/Newsweek Productions, including September's Children, a documentary for PBS exploring how children around the world are affected by terrorism and war. (Press materials)

1971 will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.

Please give us your description of the film playing.

A group of ordinary citizens risk everything on a hunch that the American government is spying on its citizens. In the process they take on one of the most powerful people in Washington -- and they win! Not only did they find evidence the government was conducting a massive, illegal spying operation, their actions also helped lead to the first investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies.

What drew you to this story?

It was thrilling to get to tell this piece of untold American history. Every aspect of the story was compelling: a group of ordinary people who put everything on the line to protect freedom of speech and hold their government accountable. So there was the small question of moral courage. 

It's also a completely improbable story -- they were complete outsiders who trained themselves to be amateur burglars in order to break into an FBI office and take documents to share them with the public by leaking them anonymously to the press. Not only did they manage to pull off a serious heist, but they manage to evade capture despite one of the largest FBI investigations of all time. And now they were going to reveal themselves after forty-odd years -- it was a scoop! 

And then there are two great journalism stories. The decision by the Washington Post to publish stories about the pilfered documents was a defining moment -- an All the President's Men moment a full year before the Watergate break-in, and a few months before the Pentagon Papers. And the decision by Carl Stern, an NBC Justice Department reporter, to sue the DOJ using the Freedom of Information Act to find out what the term COINTELPRO meant (it was a term on one of the stolen documents) meant that the public came to learn the full extent of the secret programs that existed. All in all, it was a completely inspiring and captivating story to tell -- I hope it's an enthralling one to watch!

What was the biggest challenge?

First off, being a first-time filmmaker with a film I couldn't really talk about (the subject matter was sensitive)! Fundraising for independent film is always hugely challenging. In this case, I was selective about the foundations I approached and deliberately avoided all the public pitching forums (IDFA, Hotdocs) that are usually so enticing. 

Secondly, part of the reason the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI (the main protagonists in 1971) had remained undetected for 40+ years was because they left no trace. There was nothing that existed from the planning, execution and aftermath of the break-in that is at the center of the story. No notes, no photos, only memories of the events. So to bring the story to life, I decided to use to re-creations. I was thrilled to work with [Recreations Producer] Maureen Ryan, who had produced the recreations for Man on Wire and Project Nim, and is someone whose work I had long admired. 

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Tenacity and a thick skin are key! I also found enormous strength and comfort working with a largely female team. I didn't go out of my way to build the production team this way; it just happened. It was immensely rewarding, no drama, and a lot of fun! In terms of funding, it just so happened that the biggest supporters also turned out to be women, which was incredibly encouraging and buoyed me. 

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

With so many new distribution opportunities opening up, it's difficult to figure out how best to window everything so you aren't losing traditional opportunities as you try out new ones.

Name your favorite women directed film and why.

Jane Campion has such a phenomenal body of work. The Piano is my favorite because it is such an immersive experience; there's too much to describe in one answer. More than the story, which is extraordinary. More than the acting, which is superlative, including the two amazing female roles. More than the cinematography that is wondrous. The whole is just superlative. 

But the film that made me do a double take and really think about the fact that it was directed by a woman was Point Break by Kathryn Bigelow. It was a testosterone-driven movie and the plot was far from watertight, but I was captivated by the energy of the fast-paced, high-adrenaline sequences, and the cinematography in many of those sequences. I was very impressed -- either that or, unbeknownst to me, I've always been drawn to stories that involve the FBI and burglary!