September 30, 2016
Randolph Benson’s documentary film The Searchers debuts at the Texas Theater in Dallas this November. The film explores the unique subculture of JFK researchers from the standpoint of an outsider—Benson teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University—who found himself, over time, becoming an insider.
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. I talked to him about the process of making his new film.
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.
How long have you been working on this film? How did it start?
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.
For many years now you’ve been going to conferences and interacting with researchers. Have you found them to be nutballs?
Conspiracy theorists are not nutballs. 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 as America’s most respected pathologist. But I found out, it’s true.
Did you happen to interview Edward J. Epstein? Was he ever on the table?
I mention him in my film as a very important early researcher. Interviewees in the film do mention that he took a shift in his views on the assassination.
There are so many people I would have loved to have interviewed. After photography had ended, I had 60 hours of interviews. In the credits I mention as many of the respected researchers—Ray Marcus, Epstein—as I could. I was able to interview [Praise from a Future Generation author] John Kelin about some of the first generation—to give them proper treatment and tribute that they deserve. Every time I would interview people, I would get new names.
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.
You’ve had quite a journey.
My personal path through research mirrored the direction of the average researcher. I’m sitting here in 2016, and since I started even thinking about making the film…I had a long-term relationship end. I had to put my dog down that I had for 10 years. I quit my first job and went to art school, met my future wife there, and made a little film that won a bunch of awards. Successes and failures. Buried my parents, got married, had two kids, lost two more dogs and here I am. Just my experience, the life experience making this film, mirrors the researchers. The first generation never expected to be doing this for 50 years, but they looked up and here they were. And they’re still working on the case. Because it matters.
And John Judge played a role in getting documents released into the public record after Oliver Stone’s film. Can you talk about this a little bit?
JFK was being made. John was one of a group of researchers who really pressed Stone to put a title slide at the end stating that all of the documents were to be released in 2035. A whole other generation. People read that and got furious and there was a groundswell of pressure to release the files. If you have nothing to hide, release the files. Partly because of that small group, Congress passed the JFK Records Act which convened the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) which declassified documents having to do with assassination as well as the JFK presidency. Which is important because it shows and unearths this hidden history. Started in 1992 and wrapped up in 1998. When they finished, they had declassified six million documents, so much material they had to build a second national archive in College Park, Maryland. The information revealed has rewritten the history of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so much of the machinations behind how decisions are made at that level. The entire history of the Vietnam War was rewritten; the Cold War revealed. And I do present a number of documents in the film. It is the fruits of the researcher’s labor.
Because of these documents we now know JFK had committed to pull out of Vietnam. We know that there were plans submitted to the President to create national tragedies to force us to get into a war with Cuba. There were in these documents real plans to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not tactical nukes, but bombs dwarfing Hiroshima. We were so close to destroying the world—much closer than we thought. We know this because of the researchers. Why didn’t anyone ever cover the strange details of the Reagan assassination? Well, actually John did.
Also in 1998, think about all these documents being released. Why didn’t we know? I was intensely curious; I paid attention to the news. Why didn’t I know? That may have been a precipitating event to making me commit a big portion of my life to making this film. I was pissed off that I didn’t know.
How do I know now? Because of dedicated individuals who chose to do the job our Fourth Estate should have been doing.
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 Marrs, Jim DiEugenio, Lisa Pease, Walt Brown, 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.
- See CIA Document #1035-960, “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report,” April 1, 1967. See Also: “The Term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ – an Invention of the CIA,” by Rev. Douglas Wilson, member of the Core Group, Project Unspeakable. [↩]
- See “ The CIA and the Media: 50 Facts the World Needs to Know, by James F. Tracy, Global Research, December 15, 2015. See Also: “THE CIA AND THE MEDIA, How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up,” by Carl Bernstein, Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977. ↩]
- A comparison John Judge made between the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the CIA and how much more cloaked and obscure the former was and is compared to the latter is helpful. This cloaking dynamic is a tacit indicator of it’s significance. In a 2004 film, John observed that,
“80% of the intelligence budget is controlled by the Pentagon, not by the CIA and the intelligence agencies on that side. And I’ve always said that the DIA was the real thing to look at because you can get 600 books on the CIA. I challenge you to get 2 or 3 on the DIA. There’s only 2 on the NSA and they’re both written by Bamford, the same fellow. [For] ONI I’ve found five, and believe me I look at books. And that’s the oldest and the largest intelligence agency, it started with British Naval Intelligence, ONI. And it’s very hard to find out anything about them, even at the level of the War Colleges and those things. And yet they control the base of the budget.
“What Prouty and other histories tell us is that the CIA is essentially a think tank. It comes up with plots, it may penetrate or get information on, or manipulate, groups, but in the end, when they want to carry out a special operation, they have to find a liaison to the military intelligence because the military intelligence has the equipment and the tools in order to actually effect any large scale special operation, even an assassination.” ↩]
- On 11 October 1963 JFK issued National Security Action Memorandum 263 ordering withdrawal of 1,000 troops from Vietnam by end of 1963 and the bulk of American Personnel out by end of 1965. [↩]
- “Friendly Fire,” a 1 May 2001 ABCNEWS.com article, describes how the plans defined in OPERATION NORTHWOODS “were developed as ways to trick the American public and the international community into supporting a war to oust Cuba’s . . . Fidel Castro.” The article observed that “Ironically, the documents came to light . . . in part because of the 1992 Oliver Stone film JFK, which examined the possibility of a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy. As public interest in the assassination swelled after JFK’s release, Congress passed a law designed to increase the public’s access to government records related to the assassination.” [↩]