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Berlin documentary nearing completion

February 24, 2010
BERLIN — After 18 months, "At the River's Edge: An Oral History of Berlin, New Hampshire," is getting the final touches.

Members of the Berlin and Cos County Historical Society reviewed a rough cut of the film for accuracy recently, and they are preparing for local showings in April.

The documentary was created by Blind Squirrel Productions, the Historical Society and Historic New England. It traces Berlin's history from the city's founding to today.

"It's a story of resilience," the narrator says at the start of the film, "a story of grit and determination."

The story of Berlin is told by Berlin residents. Old photographs and home movies create a visual backdrop for 41 interviews that are woven together to create the narrative. A New England accented narrator fills in the gaps

It captures the exuberance Berlin exhibited at its peak, when the Brown Company owned all the land, Main Street was packed and a rail car linked Berlin and Gorham, as well the city's decline.

"This started out to be a 30 minute documentary," said Walter Nadeau, of the Historical Society, but there was just too much to pack in to half an hour. "It wound up being an hour and a half long."

But in that hour and a half the movie explores Berlin's ethnic diversity, introduces the Brown family, explains the region's connection with hockey, and follows the early river drives. The conversations with lifelong Berlin residents reveals what the city once was, where the legendary Berlin work ethic comes from, and how Berlin's strong local pride developed.

The movie includes 16mm film from early Winter Carnivals, when the Nansen ski jump was the tallest in the country. There are home movies of the Brown family, considered the city's royalty, and films of river drivers walking on water. It captures the pioneer spirit from back when Berlin was the backbone of the region.

The documentary doesn't shy away from the hard times, either. Residents discuss the last log that floated down the Androscoggin River, and the last sheet of paper to come out of the mill. It follows ownership transfers at the mill and the resulting jobs losses. The stacks fall, schools close, and the roof of the Notre Dame arena collapses over the course of the film, avoiding a rose-colored view of the city.

But through the challenges there is hope for the future. There is an optimism about what will develop in Berlin, not just a nostalgia for what has been lost. Like the narrator says at the beginning of the film, at its root this is "a story about resilience."

The film still needs polishing before it is released—the version currently circulating is a rough cut. But the Historical Society is already planning a special local viewing at TBA Theatres Princess Theatre on Saturday, April 17. At 10 a.m., and then again at noon, both theaters will show "At the River's Edge," with a reception to follow at St. Kieran's Arts Center at 2 p.m. The filmmakers will be at the reception for anyone who would like to meet them.

The Historical Society is trying to make the showing free to anyone who wishes to attend. TBA Theartres gave the society a reduced rate on the theatres, and the Historical Society is looking for donations to cover the other costs associated with the event.

Film clips are available online at www.historicnewengland.org.

Martin Lord & Osman
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