When David Heilbroner and his wife Kate Davis attended a screening of one of their previous documentaries, Stonewall Uprising, they didn’t expect to find their next story. But inspiration struck the couple when one of Mr. Heilbroner’s former professors from Northeastern Law School approached him and started a conversation.
“You really have to take a look at what’s going on with the FBI and the American Muslim community,” he told Mr. Heilbroner. “It’s really bad.”
Mr. Heilbroner, a prosecutor-turned-documentarian, was intrigued. Together, Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis, residents of Chilmark, spent hours looking at documents, photographs, wiretaps and undercover tapes from the FBI, trying to figure out what was happening behind closed doors.
After sifting through hundreds of case files, they came across a story they thought could work for a film, the Newburgh case, where four African-American men from Newburgh, N.Y., were set up by a Pakistani informant to the FBI and convicted of terrorism for the attempted bombing of two synagogues. The Newburgh Four, as they are called, refused a plea bargain so they went to trial. Now, the men are serving 25-year prison sentences that are under appeal.
“This was a story that told itself,” Mr. Heilbroner said. “It’s inherently like a thriller, sort of a thriller meets a Quentin Tarantino farce. You have four guys who know each other in a little town and this stranger comes to town flashing big money and starts trying to talk them into committing these acts of terror and it’s all happening on camera.”
Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis were able to access tapes the informant planted in his car and house to incriminate the Newburgh Four. This footage is a critical component of the documentary and a large reason why the couple decided to focus on the Newburgh case.
When the filmmakers discovered they could have access to the undercover FBI tapes through the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Heilbroner said, “All of a sudden it turned itself from an accusation that could be argued and unfounded and made up, to you really see for yourself what goes on with the FBI when they think no one is looking.”
Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis did encounter serious difficulties throughout the process of crafting their film, though. Aside from the fear they encountered from people who were “terrified to criticize the FBI publicly,” according to Mr. Heilbroner, neither the FBI nor the prosecution would go on camera. With some persuasion, Mr. Heilbroner convinced two former FBI agents to talk and that “really turned the tide.”
“When they agreed to go on camera, I knew we could give the film the credibility and the balance that was necessary to make this film be taken seriously,” he said.
Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis hope that their film will bring the FBI’s practice of “entrapping Muslim Americans in our ‘War on Terror’” to national attention.
“Our goal was not only to make a political point, but to make a film reach a very big commercial audience because it’s such a good story to watch,” said Mr. Heilbroner.
“I think our presence is to give people who otherwise felt like they would never be listened to the chance to hope that maybe the world would actually pay attention to them,” he added.
The documentary, titled The Newburgh Sting, premiered in April of this year at the Tribeca Film Festival and “is going to Washington right now,” according to Ms. Davis.
“This film is really going to make a difference,” she said.
The film airs on HBO on Monday, July 21, and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center will host a screening the following evening, July 22, at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s very timely and we’re right now in a time in history when the FBI is under scrutiny,” said Ms. Davis. “Right now I think the doors are opening. Very few people have seen this film. The Martha’s Vineyard film screening is exposing the story just as it’s first hitting the world.”
In addition to Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis, the film has more Island connections. The documentary was financed by Impact Partners, of which Chilmark resident Diana Barrett is a founding member. The Vineyard is also the place where Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis first met, when “Dave was part of Kinship, a well known jazz group on Martha’s Vineyard 35 years ago, and I was a groupie,” said Ms. Davis.
Mr. Heilbroner and Ms. Davis live on the Island year-round, and are currently artists in residence at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this summer. On July 24, they will be showing another one of their films at the MV Film Center, a light-hearted and whimsical documentary called Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling.