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Brandon News

Filmmaker recalls interview with musician Pete Seeger

Published:   |   Updated: February 25, 2014 at 02:52 PM

RIVERVIEW – Eileen Newman, daughter of Milton and Phyllis Newman of Riverview, creates social justice videos. She presents pros and cons through interviewing people with diverse perspectives, prompting viewers to think about issues.

Many documentaries portray people who support a particular view as saints and those with other views as fools, said Newman. Or they “terrorize you in some way to make you act,” she said, which motivates audiences to action only until the next threat arises. This isn't a tact she takes.

“You reshape the discussion,” she said. “You connect at a heart space that says it's not about rhetoric, it's about human beings.”

In 2012, Newman started work on a documentary, “Two Tales of a Town,” about race relations and the 1949 Robeson Riots in Peekskill, N.Y., her hometown. Her research revealed that not only did folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, who died Jan. 27, 2014, know about the Peekskill riots, he sang at the show that triggered the violence. The concert featured the black baritone Paul Robeson, and the violence was triggered by Robeson's communist leanings, according to History.com.

When Newman realized that in 2012 Seeger still lived in the area, she wrote him, asking for an interview.

“He was totally open to talking to me, a small, independent filmmaker,” said Newman. “He said, 'I would love to talk with you about the Peekskill affair.'”

But in April 2012 she called him to postpone because she lacked funding to travel from her home base in Ashland, Ore., to New York.

“Pete said, 'I'm almost 93 years old, so you should come soon!'” said Newman.

Shortly after, Newman got a letter from someone with a foundation who gave her enough to travel and stay in New York for four days.

Newman described Seeger as “a kind, sweet, grandfatherly figure, absolutely amazing for 93,” who offered to come out with umbrellas when she and her film crew arrived at his home July 28, 2012, during a torrential downpour.

Seeger remembered the Robeson Riots in detail.

“The man told me where he was, what he was told, what the police told him, who organized this, who did that,” said Newman.

She added commentary from other first-person witnesses with different perspectives to flesh out his story. She welcomed anybody willing to talk about the incident — including a repentant rock thrower and a resident who thought the violence was necessary to protect the town.

Seeger was “a truly warm, giving, kind, practice-what-you-preach sort of man,” said Newman. “He explains why he did what he did, how he was involved in things, when they changed, what they believed in and why,” she said about his appearance in the film.

Barbara Routen is a freelance writer and may be reached at Neighbors@tampabay.rr.com.