Friday, June 20, 2014

5 Questions with Johanna Hamilton

Director/Producer Johanna Hamilton

Johanna Hamilton isn't your typical first-time feature director. Armed with degrees from the University of London and NYU (MA in Broadcast Journalism) the British-born filmmaker already has a Tribeca Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary on her resume, as co-producer of 2008's Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Her credits don't end there either: Hamilton has produced shows for A&E, Discovery Channel, The History Channel and PBS; in addition to her time as an investigative reporter for Carte Blanche, the South African version of 60 Minutes. Hamilton tackles one of the most important break-ins in US History not named Watergate in 1971, part of this year's AFI Docs. She was kind enough to answer our 5 Questions...

1. You’ve had a great deal of experience as a documentary producer. What prompted you to get behind the camera for 1971? What’s more fun, directing or producing?

Hamilton: I had been looking for a story to direct, specifically a feature length documentary. Also, I spent many years working in television where very often there isn’t a director credit given, so as producer you are de facto the director.

2. Did/do you have any trepidations of tackling this subject, considering the FBI is on the “other end” of the story?

Hamilton: Yes, but it was an important story that had never been told. The break-in was always mentioned in histories of the FBI; its' import was telegraphed in a couple of paragraphs, so it was a wonderful opportunity to tell the full story. The statute of limitations on burglary had passed, and the FBI had closed the case - so any legitimate claims that could have been brought had expired. That said, we were very quiet while in production to protect both the identity of our subjects and the story, in case there was an adverse reaction. I was greatly relieved when, back in January, the FBI issued a statement - the gist of which, was the FBI is a different institution today thanks to revelations made in the '70s.

3. Watergate seems like the “sexier" break-in, in comparison; but more than 40 years later, which event had deeper ramifications long-term?

HamiltonThe Watergate break-in is one of the most famous/infamous actions of that time and is known all over the world. Probably 99% of people have never heard of the Media break-in: Hopefully the film and the book, The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI by Betty Medsger, will change that! In the long-term, both break-ins showed abuses at the highest levels of government (the FBI and the Presidency). It was the confluence of the two events (together with other revelations like Sy Hersh’s reports that the CIA was also spying on Americans) that led to the Church Committee hearings, the first thorough review of all US intelligence agencies. And Church, in turn led to the implementation of Congressional oversight. These are all issues that are being discussed again today. 

4. What’s your take on figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden? Unlike the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, they’re universally known & pursued. How do you see events unfolding for those two in the long run?

Hamilton: If the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI had been caught back in the 1970s, everyone would be as familiar with Media break-in as they are with the Watergate break-in - they would be household names, like Daniel Ellsberg: It would have been a very high profile case. Hoover wanted to charge them under the Espionage Act. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to speculate on what might happen in the long run - it took four years between the Media break-in and the Church Committee; but I do know that several members of the Citizens’ Commission have publicly expressed their hope that Edward Snowden will be able to return to this country and not spend decades behind bars. And certainly we are once again engaged in a national conversation about the checks and balances of government that are the lifeblood of democracy.

5. What’s next for you? Back to producing, or another turn at directing/writing?

Hamilton: As a documentary filmmaker you always wear many hats. I also produced 1971, with the help of Marilyn Ness and Katy Chevigny, and a bevy of fantastic Executive Producers. I’m sure that will play into the next project!