By GWEN OREL
A Fox News-watching conservative voter from Orlando named Travis has important things to say in Reuben Atlas’ new film, “ACORN and the Firestorm.”
One might not think ACORN helped people like Travis, who aren’t liberal, but that isn’t true.
For Atlas, who co-directs and co-produces with Sam Pollard, “making a film that both sides would watch was a goal.”
When he began to make the documentary about the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, he “really wanted to come to understand how ACORN on the one hand could be all at once this sort of amazing progressive institution that fought for justice for 40 years, and simultaneously a chant at tea party rallies, representing everything wrong with liberalism. I wanted to be open-minded.”
Atlas was brought up in Montclair; his father, John Atlas, is founder and president of the National Housing Institute, based in Montclair, which publishes Shelterforce magazine. John Atlas wrote “Seeds of Change,” a critically acclaimed book about ACORN published in 2010.
Reuben Atlas, who has a law degree but went into film almost as soon as he passed the bar, knew about ACORN through his father. But finding a way in to a narrative was hard. It was “the ferocity with which it was taken down” that gave Atlas his story arc. “I was shocked and surprised that ACORN became such a big deal in the elections. Looking back it makes sense. The film provides a good idea of why. It is the launching point for the film.
“But when ACORN shut down, that’s when I felt compelled.”
“ACORN and the Firestorm” which makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend and will appear in the Montclair Film Festival, investigates the community-organizing group made nationally famous by a 2009 YouTube video made by James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. The video, which aired on Breitbart.com and on Fox News, shows Giles, posing as a prostitute, talking to ACORN staff in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, San Bernardino, San Diego, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami, with her “pimp,” O’Keefe, seeking advice on working with underage girls they plan to bring across the border to work for them.
But there’s more to the story than what’s in the video.
O’Keefe wears the costume of a stereotypical ’70s street pimp, wearing a top hat and fur coat and cane — but only in his lead-ins, or introductions to the video.
In at least one of the clips, the person he was talking to was clearly playing along. No criminal activity was ever found to have taken place, despite investigations in several states, and attorneys general and other prosecutors concluded that the video was selectively and deceptively edited.
Facing bankruptcy, ACORN shut most of its offices in 2010.
Many Americans had never heard of ACORN before the 2008 election, when it was brought up during a presidential debate. ACORN’s political action committee, ACORN Votes, endorsed Barack Obama, and ACORN itself had voter registration drives. Republicans accused the group of voter fraud.
Because of his father, Atlas knew of it much sooner. He explained that his father, John Atlas, was at one time executive director of Passaic County Legal Aid, based in Paterson, and worked above an ACORN office. “There were a lot of similarities in what he was trying to do at his Legal Aid program and what ACORN was trying to do,” Atlas said. “The broader idea was to empower communities to help themselves, [to] make actual change on a broader scale.”
Along with being a history of ACORN, his father’s book was “a look back on his career, what progressives like him, who came to consciousness during the ’60s, had accomplished. Had they created any change,” Atlas said.
To turn what is really an “epic story” into a single feature was hard. Today, Atlas said, he might pitch it as an episodic documentary. “ACORN had 400,000 members at its peak. There were tons of devoted staff people who were all interesting characters, and fought tons of battles.”
The feature documentary uses archival footage and key interviews, including one with Hannah Giles. She was “fascinating,” Atlas said. “It was her idea — that’s one thing people don’t know. I thought it was interesting that the whole thing was conceived by her.” Today, Giles runs the American Phoenix Foundation, a nonprofit to train investigative journalists. She also lives and works on a farm in Texas, Atlas said. “She stepped out of the spotlight.” O’Keefe is still in it, running Project Veritas, which produces video stings. He “never said no” to appearing in the documentary, Atlas said, but it never solidified.
O’Keefe and Breitbart.com were “small political figures even after the ACORN take-down. Now, Breitbart has this weight of getting Trump elected. And Steve Bannon, the CEO of Breitbart, is in the White House. I think the stakes are higher in some ways.”
Debut: Tribeca Film Festival
New York City, April 23-27
At Montclair Film Festival:
Tuesday, May 2, 9:30 p.m., Bellevue Cinema 1, 260 Bellevue Ave.
Thursday, May 4, 6:30 p.m., Clairidge Cinema 2, 486 Bloomfield Ave.