An eye on legends

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April 9, 2007 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 26, 2007
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Filmmaker Bill Eigen showcases lives of Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte

Nicollet Island resident Bill Eigen has worked for three years to produce a documentary about folk music legend Pete Seeger, and that amount of time doesn’t include nearly two years he spent convincing Seeger to allow the film’s production.

“He never wanted anything like that,” Eigen said. Seeger told him he didn’t care if he produced a film after his death, but he wasn’t interested in the attention now.

Eigen’s collaboration with director Jim Brown, a close friend of Seeger’s, helped secure Seeger’s approval, and the first screening will take place at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in late April.

Eigen said that until now, no one has produced an in-depth film looking at the personal life of Seeger, who is now 87. Seeger is famous for his prolific songwriting career that includes classics “If I Had a Hammer;” “Turn, Turn, Turn;” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Last month, Eigen had one last interview scheduled with Tommy Smothers, one of the Smothers Brothers who brought Seeger on television in the late 1960s. The appearance broke Seeger’s 17-year-long blacklisting induced by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Eigen said.

Eigen talked to many of Seeger’s contemporaries, including Seeger’s older brother who is now about 93. He even interviewed Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks for another perspective on musicians who fall in and out of political favor.

“You dig everywhere you can,” Eigen said. “He is an interesting person, and you meet a lot of interesting friends. There is a whole strata of a culture who were fighting for the same causes.”

When Seeger was blacklisted for alleged subversive activities in the early 1950s, he packed up his family and they traveled around the world. Eigen watched footage of Seeger in the South Pacific and India, working and singing along with the residents there. Seeger also visited Hanoi, enemy territory during the Vietnam War. Eigen said one of the most poignant clips he found depicted a backstage exchange between Seeger and Johnny Cash, who offered Seeger a spot on his television show following the controversial visit to North Vietnam. Cash told Seeger he had received letters from people who were angry that Cash would allow a communist on the show. But Cash said, “Me and June have known you a long time, and we love you and think you are one of the greatest Americans around.”

Like his film subject, Eigen is a bit modest when it comes to personal profiles. A public relations representative advised that his achievements would need to be “pulled out of him.” He has a laid-back demeanor, he is a thoughtful speaker, and he is a big believer in the importance of international travel.

The task of “treasure-hunting” for compelling film clips is a career that Eigen took on after working in several other fields.

Eigen dabbled in the film department at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s, but “everybody was doing that back then,” he said.

“I was kicking around, traveling in the underbelly of the Third World,” Eigen said. He started a healthful-fast-food franchise, organized concerts that brought musicians to the Twin Cities from India, worked in a food concession business and put on music festivals. He kept a Downtown office during his launch of a clothing manufacturing company called Boo, a line that carried polar fleece in the 1990s before it was fashionable, Eigen said.

Eigen focused on the film industry in the late 1980s, when he started writing material and sold the rights to reproduce his work to Hollywood. He has lived on Nicollet Island for the past six years, and he previously lived in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. His last film called “Isn’t This a Time: A Tribute Concert for Harold Leventhal” profiled the 2003 reunion of the Weavers, a band that includes Seeger. St. Anthony Main Theatre showed the documentary last fall.

Eigen’s next project has taken him around the world tracking Harry Belafonte, a famed calypso artist perhaps less known as an international humanitarian and civil rights advocate.

The film is tentatively titled “The Secret Life of Harry Belafonte,” Eigen said, because Belafonte believed his work would be more effective if he maintained a low profile. Belafonte was good friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eigen said King spent many nights on Belafonte’s couch in his New York City apartment, strategizing a movement that would promote racial equality. Following King’s death, Belafonte continued to advocate for civil rights through the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

A trip to Jamaica for the film brought Eigen to a rundown part of Kingston where Belafonte grew up, and Eigen interviewed Belafonte’s former babysitters who are now ages 97 and 104.

During the first trip Eigen took with Belafonte two years ago, Eigen interviewed Nelson Mandela for the film and attended a midnight mass filled to the rafters on Christmas Eve in Capetown. The mass featuring Belafonte took place at a church that served as an underground meeting place for the anti-apartheid movement.

It is no coincidence that Eigen’s film subjects have identities intertwined in the causes they champion — that’s an important theme for Eigen.

“These are two people who have dedicated their lives to their beliefs in a fearless way when there was a lot to be afraid of and a lot at risk,” Eigen said.

There are several months of editing ahead in Belafonte’s film, and Eigen said he will probably wait to surrender the Seeger film to Tribeca until he absolutely has to. The editing work is about continual choices, he said.

“You have to be able to get out of the way enough so people can meet [Seeger],” Eigen said. “This film is about all of the issues he championed. It is an antidote for all of the issues going on in this day.”