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Meet the 2014 Tribeca Filmmakers #48: Johanna Hamilton Worked in Secret on Crime Documentary ‘1971’

Meet the 2014 Tribeca Filmmakers #48: Johanna Hamilton Worked in Secret on Crime Documentary '1971'

Johanna Hamilton brought a background full of documentary work and TV production to “1971.” Her latest and most intensive project reveals the identities of the eight criminals who pulled off a cryptic and controversial heist in 1971, baffling the FBI until now. 

Tell us about yourself: I am a British-Swiss filmmaker based in New York. I grew up on steady diet of BBC News and discussion of world events around the dinner table. Social issues and exploring never-before-told personal stories are what get me up in the morning — that or one of my children who needs breakfast. When I graduated from university, I went to live in South Africa during the transition from apartheid to democracy. I started working in production shortly after arriving; it was an absolutely extraordinary period when everything was possible and everyone was accessible. It’s an inspirational time that I think back on and restores my optimism when funding runs low!

Biggest challenge in completing the project? 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.

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 Maureen Ryan, who had produced the recreations for Man on Wire and Project Nim, and someone who’s work I had long admired. 

Did you crowdfund? Generally, we had to be very underground with this film to protect the story and the subjects. We were very analogue in this very digital age. We tried to remain offline throughout the whole project – we didn’t post anything on Vimeo or do a Kickstarter campaign; we didn’t even have a website.

What camera did you shoot on? Panasonic HDX 900 for interviews and Alexa for the recreations.

Did you go to film school? I got an MA in Broadcast Journalism from NYU, and was allowed to audited George Stoney’s documentary class at Tisch.

What films have inspired you? While making this film, there were a lot of films that I drew inspiration from: principally “Man on Wire” and “Thin Blue Line” and also “Underground,” “Camden 28,” “The Weather Underground,” “Mr. Hoover and I,” “The Company You Keep,” “The Debt,” “Hearts and Minds,” and “Deer Hunter.”

What do you have in the works? I’m working hard on the impact and engagement campaign around 1971, and partnering with organizations that are working to bring attention to surveillance, civil liberties and privacy issues. In the wake of the NSA spying scandal, the topic of surveillance is so relevant in ways I never could have imagined when I started working on it four years ago. I’d like the film to be seen as widely as possible and hope to find a distributor at Tribeca who shares this goal! 

I swore after this film that my next project would be very public, that I’d be able to crowd-fund for it and go to all those public pitching forums. I can’t talk about any of the ideas that are currently germinating … yet.

Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about
their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and
what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up
to the 2014 festival. Go HERE to read all the entries.

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