Benson’s work has appeared on the Bravo Network and Canal Plus – France, and his film Man and Dog received several awards, including a Gold Medal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Student Academy Awards. He currently teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies in Duke University. I talked to him about the process of making his new film.
So who are the searchers of the title?
Who are they? The searchers are average citizens – normal people, curious people – who realized there was more to the [JFK assassination] story and information not covered by the media. The media wasn’t doing their job so they took it upon themselves to ask the unasked questions. Most of the first generation critics [those who started right after the assassination] started and never let it go. In a nutshell, they were normal people who have become marginalized – a lot of which was intentional by the CIA. They created the term “conspiracy theorist.” That term instantly became an intellectual scarlet letter.
And your film focuses on these first generation critics?
Not necessarily. The narrative thread is John Judge, who was generation 1.5. But I do cover the history of the subculture of the research community. The first generation was critical to tell the story and explain why anyone would commit any amount of their lives to this subject. There is that question – and it is a question for anyone doing anything – is why bother? They could have done anything. It was because they had questions that weren’t being answered. Because people from both generations helped reveal everything from the crimes of Vietnam and the crimes of Watergate, which led to the Church Commission, which revealed how our media was being controlled by intelligence agencies and had institutional protection.
The broader world of how things work, rather than a limited conspiracy in this one case.
I don’t necessary feel that conspiracy is a holistic term. What we’re really talking about is an institutional analysis. The really good researchers felt the same way, John Judge especially. Institutions, as I have learned, do not exist without natural protections. The intelligence community and the media are the same.
I’m going to answer this…in a kind of long way, so bear with me. From the time I was a child it was just assumed in my house that the assassination was done by elements in this country. I felt bad because my father was a fighter in the Cold War stationed on the East-West German border. Anything happens within 15 minutes, he was in the air. Bay of Pigs, the attempts on [Charles] De Gaulle, any major movement of any Iron Curtain country, he was in the air. He found out Kennedy was assassinated at dinner in the officers club. He wasn’t scrambled. For my father - he was in World War II, Korea – when protocol at that level is not followed there is a meaning to it.
[My father] was the patriot of patriots. “Yeah, they killed that bastard,” was his attitude. So when Oliver Stone’s JFK came out it piqued my interest again. I thought it was a really good drama and it had information – I mean, I didn’t know there had been a trial.
Now the films I like to make – the stories that draw me in – are about people who have been marginalized. People who do things that have to be done but no one pays attention to. My personal question was who is uncovering this information? So in 2001, it reached a point that this is a film I want to make. Why are they doing what they’re doing and why isn’t the media doing it? It seems like it should be their job.
I looked online and the only online presence at that time was JFK Lancer. So that November, I flew down to Dallas, no camera, just to see what was up. I learned there were two communities – there were researchers who were scholars…and there were those who lived up to the conventional wisdom – the classic “conspiracy theorist.” The scholars were doing good important work and revealing documents not just about Kennedy, but a whole part of American history that I had no idea existed.
Someone at Lancer told me about COPA [the Coalition on Political Assassinations] and by the summer of 2002 I realized what I had to do. So I drove to Washington, D.C. to meet John Judge and film him at American University, where he honored JFK’s famous speech there. I shot the first frame of film on June 10, 2002. I thought at that time it would be a well-researched, short thirty-minute film. I would spend a couple years on it. But after spending a year looking at the footage and reading everything I could get my hands on pro and con, I just realized that I had no idea what I was taking about. If I were going to make a film like this, I would have to learn and meet as many researchers as I could. Spend the time. Documentary filmmaking is always about story, character, and access.
Early on I realized this would not be a two-year project. Now, fourteen years later I feel like the film is done. The story that I am telling is told as well as it can be told.
Who is the audience for this story?
I’m asked all the time who my audience is. I have a card above my edit station that reminds me every day, who is my audience? And the answer is me, before I started this project. I was intellectually curious, considered myself well-informed, but had no idea about how so much about my country - and the world - truly works and how our institutions work.
That person represents a huge part of our population that can affect change. I came from a middle-class family and never wanted for anything. Always knew I would go to college. But no one I went to college with would have believed everything I’ve learned. Hopefully people seeing the film will help them reconsider and start a dialogue.
Over the years, I met maybe three or four people who fit that description. The rest are doctors and lawyers and academics, the majority of whom are just normal successful people who were curious. The really respected researchers are as far from that stereotype as you can possibly be. Dr. Gary Aguilar is one of the most respected surgical ophthalmologists in the country. I have this great sequence in the film, all in one continuous shot, which starts with him seeing someone in his office and he asks if we can walk and talk into the elevator. We go down and walk out into San Francisco General Hospital and there is a young professional woman eagerly waiting on Dr. Aguilar. She shakes his hand and he walks into a conference room with a bunch of doctors who stand up and the applause is deafening. He proceeds to give a presentation on a new surgical technique for surgery that he had perfected. That one shot sums it all up for me.
You almost have to be that good to retain your respect if you’re going to write about this sort of thing. Dr. Cyril Wecht is another example, someone who is the absolute top of his field in forensic pathology – the building is named after him at Duquesne University, and Albert Brooks just played him in the new Will Smith movie. He is the professional expert on CNN when things happen, the OJ trial, JonBenet Ramsey, etc., and yet he’s had this double life as probably the most visible figure on the medical aspects of the JFK case. If he wasn’t the pinnacle in his field, he would be easier to discredit. Instead, from what I can see the media basically pretend that part of his biography doesn’t exist.
He has been able to pursue the science of the conspiracy to kill JFK and still remain the most respected doctor in his field in the world. If anyone needs an analysis with anything to do with forensic pathology, he’s the guy. Not just the media – other experts bring him in for a second set of eyes. He is involved in almost every single prominent case in the world. Every profession, every walk of life, there’s a certain amount of hyperbole – he’s the best of all time, the greatest, etc. I was skeptical when I first saw him referred to America’s most respected at pathologist. But I found out, it’s true.
So did the CIA kill Kennedy?
Sometimes I find myself looking at old interviews I did with John Judge…he broke down the intelligence agencies in such an interesting way. People think, it’s the CIA and I guess there are other things, NSA and maybe military intelligence. But John in detail would describe all 13 major intelligence organizations working in the United States and the CIA is the smallest. The military intelligence of the Coast Guard is bigger and has more money than the CIA. The black budget is enormous. So when people say the CIA killed Kennedy, I find it interesting that it stops there. What people tend not to know is that’s just one of 13 intelligence agencies – that we know of – and sure if you want to say they killed him, that’s fine, but put it as one-thirteenth.
Its so limiting to say the CIA killed him. The assassination is the ultimate onion where you have the real story on the inside. The HSCA [the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the last official investigation of the assassination] said that there was a conspiracy, but also that other people might have been involved, but we can’t guarantee they were working together.
Which is the most ridiculous conclusion possible.
As John said, it was Shoot Kennedy Day in the knoll.
The onion just keeps getting peeled back and the CIA-did-it is just another level of the onion peeling, which all goes back to the Joint Chiefs. I think John’s analysis is dead on. It’s so astute because in the end he understood human nature on a visceral level. What makes people human. I don’t think he would have been as good a researcher if he hadn’t been a peace activist. He was a conscientious objector in Vietnam who, in one of his defining acts, helped Vietnam veterans return home. He was in the middle of the winter soldier movement to get them the help they deserved and get them back into civilian life. All his research was approached in human terms. In the film, he appears passionate, divisive, brilliant, and antagonistic at times, but in the end he sums it up by saying by working together, we can change the world. That’s the final message of my movie and it’s Johns final message. Together we can change the world.
In addition to the showings at the Lancer Conference and the Texas Theatre this November, The Searchers will also be available on DVD.
Yes, starting with a boxed set which includes the film, as well as almost 34 hours of never before seen interviews with Mark Lane, Dr. Gary Aguilar, Josiah Thompson, Dr. Cyril Wecht, Jim DiEugenio, Lisa Pease, Walt Brown, Jim Marrs, Rex Bradford, James Fetzer, Debra Conway, and Adele Edison. You will be able to buy it at the website as boxed set and then I will start making the festival rounds. Starting at European film festivals and markets. There will also be a stand alone DVD for those who just want the film itself.