Enthusiastic reception for Righteous Rebellion

Dressed for the ocassion: Hilltown residents who wore costumes to the screening of Righteous Rebellion pose with filmmaker Bruce Kennedy. From left are Mary Kinnaird, dressed as an Indian; Kennedy; Russ Pokorny, dressed as a sheriff who has been tarred and feathered; and Amy Pokorny, dressed as a Calico Indian.

To the Editor:

Filmmaker Bruce Kennedy is well qualified to bring the story of the 19th-Century uprising of the Helderberg-region tenant farmers against the patriarchal Van Rensselaer family and other wealthy Hudson Valley landowners, not just by the months of research that went into the production of his new documentary film, but also by the fact that he is a direct decedent of Dr.Smith Azer Boughton, principal leader of the Anti-Rent movement, who was imprisoned for his efforts to bring the tenant farmers out of the feudal-style servitude imposed upon them by 200 years of land and social authority.

All of these attendant historical facts and more were brought out by Bruce Kennedy at a talk given Oct. 30 to a capacity audience at the Octagon Barn in Knox, following the showing of a first version of his new documentary film, Righteous Rebellion — America's Anti-Rent War.

The film begins by exploring the cultural attitudes of the time — how the fervor of the American and other worldwide revolutions set the stage for what was to become an uprising of the last vestiges of a system of indenture set upon those who worked the land that was being heavily taxed by a small minority of the privileged-class landlords.

During the course of the film, many facets of the tenant farmers’ rebellion were illustrated, such as the blowing of tin horns to warn the Hilltown populace of the approach of the sheriff and militia coming to serve arrest warrants or force tenants off the land for non-payment of taxes.

Resistance measures included tar and feathering of militia members and farmers dressed as "calico Indians" who rode through the countryside and harassed agents of the landlords.

The film’s conclusion related how the yoke of  indentured leasehold tenure by the privileged landlords was finally lifted in the 1850s through this popular Helderberg uprising, combined with political and legal maneuverings. Kennedy's film nicely come full circle, to show how the anti-rent revolt would sow fertile seeds for later aspects of the abolitionist and suffragette movements, much of which would take place in upstate New York.

In a lively question-and-answer session following the showing of the film, Mr. Kennedy explained many of the steps that went into the production of the film, from months of exhaustive research, editing, and several intensive revisions.

Kennedy wanted the story of the Anti-Rent War to incorporate a personal touch; this he accomplished by coming to the region (Kennedy presently lives in North Carolina) to film interviews with members of local families who were direct descendents of many of the residents who had a direct role and active participation in the Helderberg uprising.

Several local history enthusiasts and officials also appear on-camera to lend some historical perspective as the story unfolds. Many of the people that appear in the film were also present at the screening and were able to amplify on their contributions.

Bruce Kennedy will now be going back to work on Righteous Rebellion with some finishing touches and adjustments to bring his engaging story of the Helderberg Anti-Rent War film to completion. When asked about the distribution of the final production, he intimated that he may approach PBS for a showing as one possibility.

I had mentioned during the course of the talk that the story of the anti-rent rebellion was even taken up by Hollywood in 1946, with the release of the film Dragonwyck, based upon a novel by Anya Seton, with Vincent Price and Gene Tierney as the leading stars. Price plays a thinly veiled role of Stephen Van Rensselaer, in a Gothic romance style that incorporates a somewhat fictionalized account of the anti-rent rebellion.

Bruce Kennedy's film, Righteous Rebellion, offers a first-time realistic overview of the historical precedents that led to the Anti-Rent War in the local area and its lingering aftermath. Judging by the overwhelming enthusiastic reception it received in late October in Knox, Kennedy's film could play to further critical acclaim if it gets the opportunity for a much wider showing.

Bruce Kennedy's appearance and film screening were co-sponsored by the Berne and Knox Historical Society's, the Helderberg Hilltowns Association, and the Helderberg Kiwanis Club.

Ron Barnell

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