About a year before the Watergate burglary, a small group of antiwar activists who called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a tiny FBI office near Philadelphia.
The group confiscated about 1,000 files of documents and an autographed photo of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1971 burglary, which resulted in exposing the agency’s Cointelpro program. The FBI’s covert and sometimes illegal program of spying on and intimidating antiwar and other mostly left-wing political organizations, which also targeted civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., was shelved soon after many of the documents were published in the media.
The FBI closed its investigation into the burglary in 1976 without identifying those involved, following a massive investigation. The group’s identity largely remained a secret until this year, when a book by Betty Medsger, the first journalist to report on the stolen documents when she wrote for The Washington Post, was released. The perpetrators included the late math and physics professor William C. Davidon, religious studies professor John Raines and his wife, Bonnie, a day-care director.
That burglary is the subject of “1971,” one of the documentaries playing in the 12th annual AFI Docs, the international film festival formerly known as AFI Silverdocs. Some 84 feature and short films will be shown between Wednesday and Sunday at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, along with some venues in Washington, D.C., including the National Portrait Gallery and the Newseum.
Johanna Hamilton, director of “1971,” said in a statement on the film’s website that she learned about the story from Medsger five years ago, and they kept the identities of the subjects quiet as they worked on their projects.
“Back in 1971, my film’s protagonists were hunted in one of the largest criminal investigations in FBI history,” Hamilton said. “I have been immensely gratified that they have been celebrated as courageous whistle-blowers.”
Although not directly analogous, there are similarities between the actions of NSA document leaker Edward Snowden and the burglars, she added.
The film will show at 11:15 a.m. on Saturday at AFI and at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Portrait Gallery.
This year’s version has 50 feature films — five more than last year. There are also more short films, as well as a free outdoor screening of “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” about the 2011 farewell concert of alternative band LCD Soundsystem, at 9 p.m. Friday at the downtown Silver Spring Plaza.
The free Guggenheim Sympsium, which will honor Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, is at 6 p.m. Friday at the National Archives.
Tickets for screenings are $14 after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. They are $11 before 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
Many screenings sell out. If tickets are sold out, patrons can wait in a standby line to buy tickets for seats that are unoccupied 15 minutes before the show starts.
Tickets to the opening-night screening of a film on actor Hal Holbrook and a reception, which includes Holbrook, at the Newseum are $75.
Some “catalyst” screenings, including ones on homeless youth, the Internet and skyrocketing college tuition, will include detailed panel discussions with filmmakers and experts afterwards.
There were almost 2,000 films submitted this year, said Christine O’Malley, interim festival director.
“While there are serious thought-provoking issues presented artfully in the films, there are equal amounts of whimsical and entertaining experiences,” O’Malley said. “What they all do, however, is inform and hopefully inspire different types of change.”
AT&T is the new presenting sponsor. Other new sponsors this year include Downtown Silver Spring, HBO Documentary Films, The Wall Street Journal and WTOP.