One of the things I love is when filmmakers turn to their own backyards to discover rather incredible pieces of history that have largely been forgotten. Director Anthony Giacchino does just that with "The Camden 28", a documentary about 28 people who risked everything to protest the war in Vietnam. Their goal was to break into a federal building in Camden and destroy draft records.
Among the 28 were four Catholic priests and one Lutheran Minister. They were all taught how to do things like pick locks by a man who turned out to be an informant for the FBI. Ironically, it was the informant who helped the group escape jail time. The story has so many twists and turns it proves the old adage that the truth is stranger than fiction. It also shows how sometimes we forget the stories that should always be remembered. The acquittals in this case represented the first complete legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of similar draft board actions. This helped signify a change in the country's attitude towards the peace movement. And, it all happened in New Jersey.
"The Camden 28" is the first feature film by Giacchino. It has been playing in select theaters across the world for the past few months and will be shown nationally on PBS on September 11, 2007. I had a chance to speak with the former Burlington County resident about the film.What was it about the story of The Camden 28 that really grabbed your attention?
Well, I grew up not far from Camden, but I didn't know anything about the story. I first heard about it in 1996 when I spoke with Father Michael Doyle who is in the film. My parents belong to his church. I thought it was kind of strange that such a big story and such an important story really wasn't that well known around here. I thought it was a great story and I wanted to save the history of it.
It was national news. There were editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post once the revelation of the FBI's role in this came out. I think it was the first time J. Edward Hoover and Attorney General Mitchell made a joint press conference announcement to announce the arrest.
There are so many issues brought up in the film such as our ability to trust the government and what lengths people will go to do things they believe in. The historian Howard Zinn put the Camden 28 in perspective of American civil disobedience like the Boston Tea Party and the release of slaves. In the end it seems like the best thing to happen to them for their cause was getting caught.
Right! It's funny you say that because obviously the intention was not to get caught. Although, interestingly enough, when they first planned out this action Father Doyle argued for doing it openly so they would be caught because he wanted to make an issue out of this. But he was outvoted and, as he says, he wasn't brave enough to do it by himself so he went along with the group.
You're absolutely right if they hadn't been caught, they wouldn't have been able to make all of their statements. So, in a weird way, it was good that they were caught but at the time it wasn't.
One of the big issues in the film is of the role of religion and war. Towards the end of the sixties, even religious leaders who had previously supported the war began pushing for peace. Today, most religious leaders seem to stand along the patriotic line more than for peace.
Right. The film recently played in New York City for two weeks at the Cinema Village. I went to all of the screenings to talk afterwards and a number of Camden 28 people came as well and one of the big questions they were all getting was 'Why was it like that then? And how did it change?' A lot of them - Father Doyle and Ned Murphy especially - said that partly it was our own fault for sort of letting it go and dealing with other issues.
This film proves that truth is stranger than fiction.
Exactly. I always thought it would have made a great movie, but I'm not sure anybody would believe it really happened. That's why I think it was important to make it a documentary.
In some ways, this is like a Greek tragedy that sort of unfolded with issues of betrayal, hubris, and all of that stuff. It's just a wonderful story.
You worked on documentary pieces for The History Channel for a long time. Do you have any plans to do an original film in the future?
I'm not sure yet. I was at The History Channel for 12 years. I'm no longer there, I'm staking out a career as an independent. I've thought about it, but right now I'm sticking with documentaries.
Are there people who do both? It would seem like you're either on one side or the other?
There are some who do it. I don't think you necessarily have to be one or the other. If it's clear that you're either doing a documentary or fiction it shouldn't be a problem.
How great is it that you do a film like this for your first feature length and it not only does well at the festivals but gets played in movie theaters and now will be shown nationally on PBS?
Yeah, and it wasn't the intention. I mean, you can always hope for that, but it's great that it all happened that way.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.