Author Archives: Louis Galdieri

Toshi Seeger, 1922-2013

Yesterday evening we read the news that Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger, Pete Seeger’s wise, talented, strong and beautiful wife, passed away at the age of 91.  You can read about Toshi’s life and her work as a filmmaker, a mother, an activist and an organizer over at Sing Out!, where Mark D. Moss has written a tribute to her. Toshi was an extraordinary woman.

Toshi Cooking Soup

The write-up also features this photograph by Ed Renehan of Toshi cooking soup . She must be in her 80s. It brings us right back to the the day we spent with Toshi and Pete at their cabin in Beacon, NY.

It was a crisp fall day. Pete sat in front of the wood-burning stove (he’d been chopping wood outside when we arrived), rocked back and forth in his chair, and talked and sang and told stories and played banjo for hours. We had to work hard to keep up with him.

Ken and I were packing our gear when Toshi announced that it was time for lunch, and invited us to sit down to a big bowl of squash soup and some homemade bread.

So we sat down at the dining table in the modest mountainside cabin Pete and Toshi had built for themselves in the 1940s. We broke bread together and ate Toshi’s delicious soup. I can’t honestly say I remember  much of the conversation: I think it was just about ordinary, everyday things. I know we felt welcome, and cared for, and warm.

Juhannus: Summer is Here

Juhannus, a midsummer celebration held near Misery Bay on the Keweenaw Peninsula, was one of the highlights of our recent screening tour of the UP. We ran into old friends and made some new ones. Accompanied by percussionist Randy Seppala, who plays bones and spoons with Johnny Perona in our film, the band Toivo played traditional Finnish music. People danced the Schottische. The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band, who a few days before had performed at the Italian Hall wreath-laying ceremony, added to the festive atmosphere. Down on the lakeshore, the everything had been made ready for the lighting of the big bonfire — the Juhannuskokko. Here are some scenes from that evening.

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Summer is here.

Public Television and Public Life — A Note from the Road

We’ve just completed a short tour of the Upper Peninsula, taking 1913 Massacre from Houghton to Ontonagon to Marquette. After each screening of the film, we take questions and comments from the audience. All sorts of things come up in those conversations. People see themselves or their own town in the Calumet story. They make connections between the past and the present, between what happened in Calumet to what’s happening right now in the UP, in Michigan and all around the country. In Ontonagon, one audience member came away from the film thinking about garment factories in Bangladesh; in Marquette, we talked about courage, resilience and how long it takes communities to recover from social catastrophe, among other things. We learn something new with every conversation.

Though the questions, insights and topics may vary, the thing that most impresses me about all these Q&A sessions — no matter the size of the audience or the setting — is the most easily overlooked: the gathering of the audience and the shared experience of seeing the film, together, creates an opportunity for public conversation.

That’s why I’m always a little thrown when someone raises his hand in one of these public gatherings to ask whether we’ve approached PBS with our film or whether 1913 Massacre will air on public television. There are other versions of the same question. Will the film be at Sundance? Will it be on HBO? Wouldn’t it lend itself to feature film treatment? Have we approached Steven Speilberg or — name your favorite Hollywood mogul or celebrity. But the PBS question is the one we get most frequently.

The simple answer is, of course we approached PBS, Independent Lens, POV, and so on, repeatedly, for funding and grants while working on the film; and of course we are still making efforts to bring the film to wider audiences. PBS, or some part of the public broadcasting system, might offer an opportunity to do that.

That, at least, is an answer that gets us past talking about the movie business and the business prospects of our film and back to the film itself and the experience of the film we all just shared.

I realize that the PBS question and others like it show appreciation and support for the film: it’s a way of wishing us success, or a way of saying that other people, friends, family, lots of people, millions of PBS viewers should see our film. They should, with any luck they will, and it’s good to hear others hope they do.

At the same time it’s worth asking why the PBS question comes up so often, and more importantly why the question seems odd and entirely out of place at a public gathering and in a public forum. Would a PBS broadcast give our film a seal of approval it lacks? Would an Oscar? Would Steven Speilberg? Maybe, but why should any of that matter right now? We’re not approaching Speilberg: we’re approaching you. What do you say? What do others in the room have to say? Why look elsewhere? Why wait for permission? What about the approval 1913 Massacre already received, just now, right here in this room? What about the experience we all just shared? Surely we haven’t exhausted that — and surely that counts for something, for much more.

We’re here together, right now, in this room. Let’s appreciate and own it, and make the most of the opportunity we have. Let’s forget about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and every other kind of corporate gatekeeper. Let’s not await a word from our sponsor or even admit them into the room. Let’s not diminish the present moment and our experience — a public experience, an experience of being together, in public. Let’s not look for validation or value beyond this room: we have it all, right here.

You see where this is heading. There are lessons in all this about the power people and communities have and the power we surrender, every day and for no good reason, to outside authorities, influencers and exploiters — to powerful institutions, brand names, celebrities, big money. These gatherings in small towns, in classrooms, halls and clubs, in local theaters and public libraries may look modest, but they give us a chance to exercise our habit for democracy.

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People gather in the Community Room at the Peter White Library in Marquette for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

That’s why, in the end, television broadcast can’t hold a candle to public screenings like the ones we’ve had and will continue to have. Television is not just a poor substitute for community gatherings and public life. It pulls us away from those things and from each other. Watching television is a retreat from public gathering — a withdrawal into the privacy of one’s own. In this sense, “public television” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

There’s an aesthetic dimension to this as well. Our film, all film, plays best on a big screen, with a live audience. People laugh and cry together, some gasp, some cough (somebody always coughs), others sigh, shift in their seats. Applause brings everyone together at the end. (Booing and jeering would do the trick, too, but with 1913 Massacre we’ve so far been spared that experience.) These emotions, actions and reactions are an under-appreciated but essential part of the motion, or kinesis, of the cinematic experience. Films come alive — that’s the right word, alive — when people gather to see them; and when people share in public conversation what they’ve seen, they have a special chance to see each other, anew, on the other side of a new experience.

A woman in the audience in Houghton seemed to understand all this when she rose from her seat and exclaimed: “this film should be shown in every small town across the country!” If only we could make that happen.

Moses Called The First Strike

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.

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Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.

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1913 Massacre in New Hope on 07/15/13

1913 Massacre in Ontonagon on 06/23/13

1913 Massacre in Houghton on 06/20/13

1913 Massacre in Marquette on 06/24/13

Roy Stafford Reviews 1913 Massacre

Roy Stafford has written a lengthy review of 1913 Massacre — which screened today at the Bradford International Film Festival in the UK — on The Case for Global Film. His thoughtful review touches on a number of themes and questions the film raises, and draws parallels with other films that tell “people’s history.”

The film turns out to be about [Woody Guthrie’s] song, about the memories and about the narration of history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day…

Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.

You can find Stafford’s full review and join the discussion about the film here.

People’s History is Alive

I love this tweet:


This is from the Twitter account of Voices of a People’s History.

I suspect it was posted partly in response to David Greenberg’s vituperative account of Howard Zinn’s life and work in The New Republic. Greenberg portrays Zinn as a deeply flawed, philandering charlatan, who didn’t keep pace with work in his own field, and kept “aloof from the intellectual ferment of the seminar rooms, journal offices, and conferences where radical history was being born.” As for Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States, Greenberg dismisses it as “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Zinn has always had his detractors and defenders, and plenty of people have risen to his defense. (Clement Lime wrote one of the stronger responses to Greenberg, I think.) It’s interesting to think that our film might have a place in the conversation.

But that’s not what I like so much about this tweet. If there’s one thing we discovered about “people’s history” in the course of making our film, it’s that people’s history is alive. History lives and breathes in people; their memories, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the photographs they cherish — all those things aren’t just artifacts or objects of study, even if historians say they are.

History is at work in everything people do — and in a place like Calumet, where past troubles were never really laid to rest, history can work in mysterious ways. People talk about the past in order to talk about the present; and if they do not want to talk about the past it will find a way to assert itself in the present. People may see in the past some faint image of ourselves and our lives, but more importantly we carry the past with us; it’s our constant companion. It comforts us and causes us pain; it can be a source of pride or shame, pleasure or remorse. It can entrap us and enrich us.

People’s history is alive not because there are historians who study it, but because, like it or not, deny it or embrace it, study it or try to forget it, it’s our story.