Laura Poitras, the filmmaker and journalist who until last week had remained overseas after her Edward Snowden expose broke last June, joined a packed house Friday for the world premiere of 1971 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The documentary tells the remarkable story of eight activists who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., outside Philadelphia. The incriminating files they stole led to waves of media coverage and eventual government probes, the first ever to examine FBI practices, decades before Snowden or WikiLeaks transfixed the nation.
Even though the case had been closed in 1976 without any convictions, those behind the break-in had waited for a clear sense the coast was clear before revealing their involvement. On Friday, as the credits rolled after the briskly paced, 80-minute film directed by Johanna Hamilton, they got numerous standing ovations from the partisan crowd.
Poitras joined them onstage and paid homage. "Without what they did, nothing in our work would have been possible," she said.
Keith Forsyth, one of the participants in the break-in (who has one of the film's highlights with his description of the anxious moments when the building superintendent was too distracted enough by the Ali-Frazier fight on TV to hear the rumblings of file cabinets being pushed around), noted it took five years after the 1971 break-in for Congress to hold hearings. "It's early days for Edward Snowden," he told Poitras. "We hope he's back here before he's as old as the rest of us."
One of the heroes of the film who did not appear at Friday's screening was former NBC reporter Carl Stern. It was Stern's Freedom of Information requests - and eventual lawsuit - that finally dislodged four FBI documents. Those four droplets of evidence led to a flood of other revelations -- and 50,000 more documents -- as the public finally became aware of the misdeeds of some factions within J. Edgar Hoover's previously unexamined agency.