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Remnants of the Past

This is the message someone painted on boards in 1952 and attached to the highway sign for Ellenton, S.C. The mixture of bewilderment, anger, pride, resignation and sorrow expressed here pretty accurately reflects the complex of emotions felt by the 5,000 residents of Ellenton, Dunbarton and Myers Mills forced off their farms and out of their towns. The federal government needed that land to build the 300-square-mile Savannah River Plant. Families had six months to pack up and move before their homes, some of them on land they’d farmed for seven generations, were either torn down or hauled away on flatbed trucks. Your choice was to accept the government’s offer of $42 an acre or have it confiscated.

The “dear hearts and gentle people” scattered in every direction, a few settling around New Ellenton. The old Ellenton, its shops and family farms, was simply erased, eventually swallowed up by the forests that now cover most of what is now SRS. Most travelers from Augusta headed for the beach down Highway 125 drive through the thick woods without an inkling of the little towns that once flourished here.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if you could talk to the survivors of that time who remember what used to be? To hear about the town characters, the places people used to shop, swim, go to school, worship? To look at photographs of the houses and stores, the kids playing, the high school proms, the church suppers, the farmers plowing, the community celebrating?

Mark Albertin thought so. So for almost four years, in his spare time, he researched the area and its history, tracked down the exiles, interviewed them on video, digitized their photographs. He sifted through the archives of libraries, newspapers, television stations, found old news footage. Then he performed the artistic alchemy of editing, organizing, writing to created Displaced: The Unexpected Fallout From the Cold War. The documentary premiered in 2009, ran on SCTV, won Best Southern Feature at the Appalachian International Film Festival and has been a finalist in other film festivals. It’s just one of the films Albertin has made since 2000 when his Augusta Remembers came out. Other films on local subjects are Twice a Hero: the Jimmie Dyess Story and War Stories: Augusta Area Veterans Remember World War II, for which he received the Georgia Archives Award for Excellence in Documenting Georgia’s History. In all these documentaries, Albertin taps into the memories of those who lived in times very different from our own. With still and moving images, narration and music, he re-creates worlds that are just beyond our reach and becoming more remote every day, capturing living history just before it disappears.

“I’ve always heard that the Native Americans really listened to their elders because they knew they had great wisdom,” Albertin says. “Many times I think we overlook the great wisdom that is in our own seniors. They have had such experiences…the Great Depression, World War II. How did it feel to experience those things? If you’re polite and respectful, they are gracious and more than willing to talk.”

At 6 feet, 5 inches Albertin is a towering presence, but he’s so big-hearted that he generates a sense of joyful warmth. On video shoots he folds his lanky frame down onto his haunches to get at a comfortable eye-level with his subjects. His respect for and interest in old people wins their trust and they ease back into their memories, pleasant or terrible. In Displaced the memories are a mixture of both as the old residents finally get to tell their story.

Augusta Remembers came out in 1999-2000. It was a big success. “That opened my eyes to how important this kind of work is because these people were dying, and this was a bridge between the past and the future. I interviewed more than 30 people and over half of them are gone now. These were pillars of the community, eyewitnesses to the fire of 1916, the flood of 1929. They were actually there. I preserved their stories on video and now those people are gone."

“I got a lot of subtle signals from the Department of Energy that they didn’t want me to do this. They would have been happy to let these people die without telling their story and just have this history disappear. What these folks had experienced was something like what happened after the Civil War, with people from the North coming in and telling them they have to get off their land. At the premiere a lot of them had tears in their eyes. Some I’d interviewed in the film had already died and a lot more are gone now. I’ve attended a lot of funerals.”

The beauty, power and technical polish of Albertin’s documentaries provide no hint that he only started making films in 2000. A native of Wisconsin, Albertin was eeking out a living there as a technician in still color photography. His family moved to the Savannah area in 1985, but he stayed behind. “I worked, starved and froze in Wisconsin,” subsisting on bread and jelly. He held out for a year, then migrated himself. “It’s the best decision I ever made, a life-changing moment. It’s interesting how you take a path and, if you open door two instead of door three, your life is radically different. I still had friends and family in Wisconsin. I could have stayed.” But his work processing color for magazines led to a position at Morris Communications, and that led to his move to Augusta.

By a wonderful coincidence, Augusta was his mother’s hometown. In 1999 he decided to make a video for her about her mother’s life in Augusta back in the early 1900s. His grandmother had died before he was born, but Albertin learned about Augusta by reading history, interviewing some of his grandmother’s contemporaries, gathering photographs. He wrote a narration, made the video and gave it to his mother. She loved it.

 But Albertin was hooked. He wanted to learn more about local history, interviewing and the art of making video.  His employers and media colleagues at Morris were generous with their knowledge when he would come in after work and on weekends to learn to use the equipment. He convinced them to let him create a video history of Augusta. Jeff Barnes taught him how to interview people and how to operate the big studio camera, studded with buttons; Jo Ann Hoffman helped him develop his eye and his writing, teaching him how to create flow and coherence, how to write for the ear rather than the eye.

“Gradually the training wheels came off. I started editing. They’d come in and critique. That was very hard at first, but Jo Ann taught me to open my eyes, to pay attention to repetitive criticisms viewers would make. Now with every film I get a focus group to watch, fill out questionnaires, cut my film down.”

Augusta Remembers came out in 1999-2000. It was a big success. “That opened my eyes to how important this kind of work is because these people were dying, and this was a bridge between the past and the future. I interviewed more than 30 people and over half of them are gone now. These were pillars of the community, eyewitnesses to the fire of 1916, the flood of 1929. They were actually there. I preserved their stories on video and now those people are gone.

“That got me started, so I convinced Morris to let me make videos in a number of markets.” Between 2000 and 2007, Albertin made documentaries in cities with Morris papers: St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Topeka, Kan., Savannah, Aiken. He learned to plan carefully and work efficiently, sometimes being away from home for weeks, subsisting on Lean Cuisine in a hotel room: “For each city I did lots of research, lots of groundwork. I’d schedule three interviews a day, spend another day in a museum digitizing photographs, shoot B-roll on weekends, edit at night.”

Morris’s need for documentaries ended in 2007. Today Albertin shoots video for the company’s advertisers and teaches reporters how to use video in their reporting. “Small cameras now are so easy to use and have phenomenal quality. Reporters can shoot video with Droids and iPhones. A reporter can edit game video while the GreenJackets game is still going on and get the jump on TV. I teach them to shoot not only good video, but video that tells a story that can stand on its own.”

It’s satisfying work, but Albertin can’t stop making documentaries. He started Scrapbook Video Productions, his own production company, in 2000, mortgaging his house to buy his own video equipment. A room in his Overton Road home serves as his editing studio. He calls it “my little hideaway.”  This is where—after work and on weekends—he made his films on Jimmie Dyess, Ellenton and the World War II veterans.  When he’s working on a project, he’ll be editing back here until 3 a.m., his bull mastiff Carmen sleeping at his feet.

Albertin calls his wife, Sarah, “the silent partner” in Scrapbook Video. She has learned to accept this strange obsession and all it costs them. “Sometimes the lawn looks horrible, the paint is peeling off the house and I’m always back there working. But she sees the impact these films have on these seniors in their 70s, 80s, 90s. She understands.”

Scrapbook is a one-man production company. Albertin comes up with an idea and tries to find a source of funding other than his credit card. Finding money is the part he hates. Then he researches his topic, finds subjects to interview, does the sound, the light, the camera work and the interviewing. He edits the interviews, shoots B-roll, decides what kind of opening and conclusion to use, writes the narrative, finds the right narrator, the right music—what he calls “adding vegetables to the broth and cooking it.”  No wonder a single documentary can take three years.

Albertin has two in the works right now. Finding Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay is a piece on Dave, the famous slave-potter from Edgefield. Archeologists with the Savannah River Archeological Project recently dug up an almost complete pot created by Dave out at the Savannah River Site and contracted Albertin to do the film. It will come out this summer. The second project, still in the development stage, will focus on William Bartram, the naturalist who documented his explorations of Georgia in the 1770s.

With the weddings Albertin shoots on weekends, Scrapbook just about breaks even. His hero, documentarian Ken Burns, warns documentary makers not to plan on getting rich. For the hours you put into a project, there’s no way to justify it financially.

“You have to love doing it,” says Albertin. “You know you’re leaving a mark behind, you’re teaching the future about the past. You meet all kinds of really cool people. How else could I meet all these World War II veterans and hear their stories about flying through flak, or hear about what people went through in the Depression when biscuits and syrup is the meal for the day, or hear what it was like to be discriminated against in the Jim Crow days? That’s an enriching gift I wouldn’t have if I weren’t doing documentary work. This knocks everything else right out of the park.”

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