The Camden 28

PBS Premiere: Sept. 11, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: Describe The Camden 28 for someone who hasn't seen it.

Anthony Giacchino: The Camden 28 is about a group of antiwar activists from the Vietnam Era who broke into government offices to destroy documents used to draft people to go to Vietnam. The Camden 28 tells the story of the planning of the break-in, the break-in itself, their arrest and their trial They broke into the draft office to destroy the records because they believed that people should not be sent to kill other people, nor should they be killed themselves, specifically in this war, which they felt was immoral. The Camden 28 surprised many people because they came out of this tradition known as the Catholic Left. There were four Catholic priests, a Lutheran minister, a Protestant and the rest were Catholic lay people.

POV: How did you come to make The Camden 28?

Giacchino: I grew up in south Jersey about 20 minutes north of Camden. My high school friend, Dave Dougherty, the cinematographer, and I wanted to make a local film. I hadn't heard the story of the Camden 28 until 1995. My parents belonged to the church where Father Michael Doyle, one of the Camden 28, is pastor. And a former high school history teacher of mine, Terry Egan, who goes to the same church, told me what he knew about Father Doyle's involvement in the raid and suggested that I talk to him. After church one Sunday, I said, "Father Doyle, Terry Egan told me about something called 'the Camden 28.' What was that about?" He told me a little about it, and then I read about it on microfilm of newspapers. I asked Father Doyle if I could talk about it with him using just a tape recorder. After talking with him for four hours, I knew it was a great story that should be saved.

POV: How long did it take to make the film?

Giacchino: It was a ten year process because both Dave and I had full-time jobs, so it was something that we could only do on weekends, holidays and vacations, with funding from individual donations. The summer of '96 we drove across country to meet as many of the Camden 28 as we could to figure out what the best story was to tell because we knew it would be hard to get all 28 on camera, and that from a filmmaking point of view, it would be confusing to have all 28 in the film. We started sit-down interviews in '98 and into 2001. The courthouse reunion, which is in the film was in 2002, and that was the last major thing that we shot. I started the editing myself after I took a class in FinalCut Pro, and for two and a half years I struggled at home with telling the story. We had so much material, and I knew the story from A to Z, but that posed a problem for me because by the time I got to the trial, I lost perspective. So I went and found an editor who knew nothing about the story, and that ended up being the best thing because he could go through what I had already done and point out what I had already said as well as what didn't make sense.

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POV: The film seems like it's very much about the city of Camden. Tell us about Camden and why these people did what they did there.

Giacchino: Draft board raids had been happening all around the country, but they picked the draft board in Camden, New Jersey, for specific reasons. Camden is in south Jersey, across from Philadelphia. Moorestown and Cherry Hill — very affluent communities with good schools — are near there, just 20 minutes away. Crime, poverty and drugs are terrible problems in Camden and have been for decades. It's one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Father Doyle says it's worse today than it was back in '71, and that was the Camden 28's whole point — that the money spent on bombs should be spent on buildings. Doyle talks about Camden as a casualty of a war economy, when money is funneled into the military that could be used to help rebuild communities and create jobs — and the same is true today. The Camden 28's action was not just a call to end the Vietnam War and to stop people from going, but it was to bring attention to this city that was falling apart. My favorite line of the whole film is the very last line, from Father Doyle: "Camden was the perfect place to make the statement that the money that's spent on bombs could be spent on buildings — that was the big point we were trying to make. And it's still true. In fact, it's more true today, and we're still wasting the money on the weaponry, and we still have Camden the way it is. So there is no vision, and the people are perishing here because there's no vision." Then it ends with scenes of Camden, a completely destroyed city.

POV: This story happened when you were still a baby, so you're of the generation that's once removed from the Vietnam War. What do you find so compelling about it?

Giacchino: I think that a lot of people think, as I did, of the Forrest Gump version of the Vietnam War — a cartoonish image of students who had a lot of time on their hands, grew their hair long and went to Washington, maybe burned a draft card.

I didn't have a sense of how serious the movement against the war was. But when I heard this story and I met these people, I realized that these people were as old as 46 and they had families and jobs. Some were priests, and they still decided to do something that could land them in jail. I wanted to understand why people would commit themselves to doing something like that. It was just amazing to me they were willing to break into a government building and destroy draft records for their beliefs. The other thing that was interesting was the fact that most of them were Catholic, because Catholics are generally very conservative. Yet the actions of the Camden 28 did come out of the Catholic tradition. I had never heard of the Catholic Left before.

POV: What's the history of the Catholic Left?

Giacchino: If you look back to the second century A.D., early Christians were pacifists. Historical records show that there was not a Christian in the army until the second half of the second century because Christians believed that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with killing and making war. At the time, a Greek philosopher named Celsus, a critic of the Christians, argued that if all men were to act as Christians did, no one would be around to defend kings. It's important that that tradition doesn't just belong to Catholics; it belongs to all Christians, something I realized after making the film. Then, in the 20th century, people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin (founders of the Catholic Worker Movement) interpreted the gospel very simply: feed, clothe and shelter. Catholic Worker houses opened during the Great Depression, and there are still two in New York City. The mission of caring for other humans influenced the Civil Rights Movement.

POV: What was Father Doyle's history as a Catholic activist?

Giacchino: Father Doyle actually ended up in Camden because of his antiwar activism. He was exiled there because in the '60s he was teaching at a relatively well-to-do school in south Jersey and he was in touch with the Berrigan brothers, who really began draft board activism. The school band was going to play at a victory-in-Vietnam rally one weekend, and he publicly said that that having the school band go to a victory-in-Vietnam rally was outrageous. At the end of the school year, he was told that he was not going to be returning, that he was transferred to Camden — all because of his outspoken views against the war. So he ended up in Camden ready for action.

He said that at one point there was a group of Catholics that got together and talked about how maybe one Sunday in church all the priests should preach about peace in their sermons. It was a big meeting, and he stood up and said, "This is not going to do anything because everybody's going to have their own interpretation of what it means. What we should really do is get bricks from broken-down buildings in Camden and get a list of everybody from the county who was killed in Vietnam. We'll wrap the bricks up in these papers, and we'll throw one of these bricks through the windows of military installations all over south Jersey. That will let them know how we feel about this." Obviously, the church didn't agree to do that, but word went out that he was serious. Some people who were involved in the Camden 28 came to see him, and that's how he got involved. He didn't always have this viewpoint, but he was teaching the Sermon on the Mount, about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy and blessed are the peacemakers, and felt that he should be putting these ideas into action.

POV: How did you establish trust, not just between you and Father Doyle, but also between you and the other members of the Camden 28, so that you were able to persuade them to participate in your film?

Giacchino: It wasn't easy to gain the trust of all of the members of the Camden 28 for a couple of reasons. One was because they felt that since I was barely born when this happened, I couldn't know anything about the movement against the war in Vietnam, and maybe I couldn't be trusted to tell their story. There were some who said they would love to talk to me about it, but others had a more hardline attitude about whether or not I should or could make the film. Also, one of the Camden 28 wanted to make a documentary himself, which I thought was great. I said at the time, "the more the merrier," but he felt that the story should be told by the Camden 28 first because they were the best people to tell their own story. I argued that both would be valuable and that having me, an outsider, tell their story might be good because I wouldn't be encumbered with personal prejudices, and we'd wind up with very different films. That was hard because I felt like I was demonized when I wanted to help tell their story."

POV: What was the biggest challenge making the film?

Giacchino: Next to the trust factor and getting funding and time? A big challenge was getting Bob Hardy, who was the informer, to participate. It would have been a very different film without Hardy. The first time I approached him, he was nice but just said, "No, thank you. I don't want to." I tried again six months later and he very graciously again said, "No, thank you," when he could have just ignored me. I tried one more time, but this time I said to him, "I appreciate and I respect your decision, but I just want to let you know that if you don't participate, then other members of the Camden 28 are going to give the reasons for why you did what you did, and you should know that." Within a week I got a phone call from him saying he'd do it. I wasn't trying to coerce him, but I wanted to tell him the truth of what was going to happen. Then when he did the interview, he was as open as could be and very nice about it.

POV: What was your greatest satisfaction in making this film?

Giacchino: When I first called Gene Dixon, one of the Camden 28, to ask him if he wanted to be interviewed for the film, he said, "Sure, I'll do the interview, but do you really think you're going to sell more than 28 copies of this?" The greatest satisfaction has been saving a piece of history — not only local history, but national history. Also, it's played at festivals in Istanbul, Brussels and London. It's an important story that people should know about, not just because it's our history, but because it's meaningful given what is going on in the world today.

POV: What about the story of the Camden 28 is relevant to 2007?

Giacchino: If the war in Iraq didn't happen, and even if September 11 didn't happen, the film would have been the same film, except, of course, the ending updates where you see Camden 28 members marching, which I included just to show that they're still at it. I wanted to tell the story of the Camden 28, but I also wanted to raise questions about government deception and reasons for going to war. I think that's why the film struck a nerve with so many people. It's the best time for the film to come out because it raises those questions that people are talking about again. You watch it and you think, "Has the government changed?" Not only in terms of war, but in terms of how the government might infiltrate groups, for example, with eavesdropping. I didn't revisit these themes on purpose. There's a line in the film, put in before the wiretapping scandal, in which, after the arrests, J. Edgar Hoover says something along the lines of, "You should know that you can contact the FBI anytime you need to. We're as close to you as your telephone." Whenever that line comes up, the audience starts laughing. That wasn't intentional, but one can't help but think, "They're at it again."

POV: How did making this film change you?

Giacchino: It opened my mind to my own history and my own traditions, or what I was taught — or not taught. Also, I'm a pretty patient person, but in making the film I had to learn how to deal with people, to always return and try again, and to not turn my back on any of the participants, even though some were quite hostile. It helped me learn how to handle specific situations as it pertains to making a film and trying to get someone to talk to you.

POV: In partnership with the National Historical Society of the Federal District Court for New Jersey, you organized a re-creation of the 1971 Camden 28 trial. Do you think that this re-creation has historical value in itself, apart from its usefulness in the film?

Giacchino: Yes, I do, and I know the historical society agrees. They knew that Doyle was still in Camden, so they talked to him, and he said they should call me. They asked for copies of the interviews, and I said I'd be happy to share them when I was finished. I always wanted to get inside that courtroom, but that was not allowed, and I thought maybe they would want to do a reunion. It was a shot in the dark, but I proposed it to them: "If I could get Camden 28 members and the FBI and prosecutors together, would you be willing to sponsor a reunion and tape it? And then you can have your history, and I could use it in the film?" They thought about it and decided that if I organized it, they'd pay for it. Private donations from members of the historical society paid for the whole thing, and I made sure everyone got there. Mrs. Good was the only one who read from her testimony there that day. Not only was her testimony so important for the trial and its outcome, but I also knew it had to be in the film. I didn't realize that that was going to happen until the day before, when I had been planning the reunion for two months. When Bob Good showed up with his mother, I asked him if his mother would go on the stand and read her testimony — you couldn't have it any better, with her standing in the same box and recounting her testimony and then reading from it. He said he thought she'd be very hurt if we didn't ask her to. It really was beautiful, and very important from a historical preservation perspective and for the film.

POV: Can you tell us about the legal precedent that came out of the trial of the Camden 28?

Giacchino: It is important, but it hasn't been used since. At the trial, the Camden 28 could not argue that they were entrapped by the government because Hardy joined them after they began surveillance, and Hardy didn't introduce the idea to break in. But they were able to argue what afterward became known as "overreaching government participation." Their argument went like this: They admitted from the beginning that they broke in, and then said that they wanted to do it and explained why. They wanted the jury to acquit them based on their action itself, to agree that what they did was right and that the war was wrong. But that wasn't going to convince all of the jurors — some of them, yes, but some of them thought that while the Camden 28 were decent, likable people, they did break the law. The Camden 28's second defense was to raise the question of overreaching government participation, positing that Hardy didn't make them do it, but he certainly made it possible for them to do it. They wanted to get into that building, but it wasn't until he joined them that they overcame every obstacle. They were thinking about giving up, and then Hardy revived it and took them into the building. The judge charged the jury with deciding if this was a case in which the government went too far in helping to instigate and commit a crime. The judge said, "If you feel that this is one of those cases, you may acquit the defendants." His actual charge stated: "there is another defense . . . 'creative' [or] 'overreaching' 'activity.' If you find overreaching participation by government agents or informers . . was so fundamentally unfair and shocking to the universal sense of justice, then you may acquit . . . . under this particular defense, you need not consider the predisposition of any defendant."

Half of the jury really depended on that to be able to say "not guilty." And no other defendants have gotten this jury charge, before or after the Camden 28 case.

POV: Bob Hardy became a member of the Camden 28, and then became an informant for the FBI. How do the other members of the Camden 28 feel about him now?

Giacchino: When Mike Giocondo went to Hardy to ask him to get involved in breaking i to the draft board, Giocondo and Hardy were good friends, and Hardy was good friends with Father Doyle. The very next day, not even 24 hours later but more like 12, Hardy went to the FBI and said, "My friends are involved in this thing and I don't think it's right." That's important to understand — it wasn't like he worked with them for two weeks or a month. And if he didn't agree with them, he could have told them right then and there that it was a stupid thing and that if they continued with it, he would go to the police. That's all he had to say to end it. Some of them today still really feel that there was no reason for him to go to the FBI. Obviously, when he was revealed as the informer, they were deeply hurt and felt betrayed. But some of the Camden 28 were not from Camden — they floated in from Boston and D.C. — so they didn't have that sense of betrayal that his friends did, although they were very angry. When Hardy's son died, only a week or so after they had spent a few weeks in jail, they went to the funeral out of compassion for Bob, even though he had turned them in. I think they were able to separate the two, but it didn't mean that once Hardy's son died they could be friends with him again. Giocondo didn't talk at any length with Hardy until the reunion in the courthouse in 2002. It was still hard for him after all these years. When we did the reunion, there were people from the Camden 28 who were not happy that Hardy was there, but others had moved on and forgiven him, and they talked to him.

There is one other thing that didn't make it into the film that is important. There was a dry run the weekend before the break-in, and the FBI had told Hardy that they would arrest the activists before they broke into the building. So the Camden 28 went through the dry run, brought up the van to the back and took out the ladder. That's when they were supposed to be arrested, but they weren't. They put the ladder back in the van and left. Hardy asked why they weren't arrested, and one of the FBI agents said that the decision to let them break in and destroy the files and then arrest them was made in "the little White House in California." Hardy knew for a whole week that they would be arrested during the break-in, not the dry run. That's where some of the Camden 28 fault him — he could have told them then.

POV: What would you like people to take away from this film?

Giacchino: I hope people who see The Camden 28 will understand that people who were involved in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam Era were not just college kids with long hair with a lot of time on their hands who marched in Washington and burned draft cards. These were serious, very committed activists who were willing to go to jail for their deep beliefs in nonviolence. They were regular people, not student leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They had families, and some were priests. I'm not sure I could go to jail. Also, as Howard Zinn points out, I hope that people can see the parallels with the Boston Tea Party — activists who destroyed property are in every American history textbook as patriots. I think the Camden 28 should be thought of the same way.