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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: December 23, 2016

Directors of a documentary about the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument aim to capture all sides

“The Mountain and the Magic City” should be completed in about a year.

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Ben Severance and Bridget Besaw, co-directors of the upcoming documentary "The Mountain and the Magic City." Photos courtesy of Ben Severance

Ben Severance and Bridget Besaw, co-directors of the upcoming documentary “The Mountain and the Magic City.” Photos courtesy of Ben Severance

On the surface, the creation of a new Maine national park seems a no-brainer.

Conserving the state’s natural beauty, attracting tourist revenue, protecting wildlife — who could be against that?

But, for people in the Millinocket region, the donation of nearly 90,000 acres of Maine woodland by businesswoman and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, and the subsequent dedication of the land as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument by President Obama, is anything but an unalloyed boon.

Bridget Besaw and Ben Severance, co-directors of the upcoming documentary “The Mountain and the Magic City” have been speaking to people on both sides of the contentious issue of turning the national monument into a full-on national park.

I spoke to them about how the ongoing battle illuminates many issues, not only for Maine, but for the national discourse around all such controversies.

Here’s what they said:

How long have you been working on “The Mountain and the Magic City,” and how have you been received by the region’s people?

Ben Severance: We’ve been working since last January. (They estimate the film will be completed near this time in 2017.) Bridget did a photo book about the North Woods and knew all the major players up there. She’s a trusted name with a lot of people, which helped. But it’s been a mixed bag, especially in the beginning. A lot of people automatically assumed we were being paid by Roxanne Quimby. But, in talking to us, most have come to see it as a way to open up a conversation.

Bridget Besaw: As an arc to our film, we’ll be hopefully waiting around long enough to find out what commonalities can be met, how people adapt and cope with the monument designation. And how some people don’t.

Lincoln Mill

Lincoln Mill

This region was economically crippled by the collapse of the paper industry, yet many there strongly oppose the possible resurgence a national park would provide. What are their reasons, and what do opponents see as an alternate road to recovery?

Besaw: Half of national parks come about by dedicated as monuments first. The state Legislature had rejected the park before President Obama created the national monument designation through proclamation. Some people don’t trust the federal government, which, to them, makes this the worst way this could have happened. Also, a lot of southern Mainers and others don’t realize that the people of this region have a long heritage of forestry and paper-making. The average person pondering the pros and cons aren’t factoring that in. They’re not seeing the nuances.

Severance: It’s the million dollar question. Everyone we’ve talked to is wondering what happens next. If not the park, then what’s the plan? Some people dream of the mills opening back up, or those sites becoming other industrial spaces that will employ a lot of people. They were known for making world-class paper. The transition to a service-based industry is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people.

In your description of the film, you talk about each side having become “entrenched in their own views.” Is there any sign of that intransigence changing?

The East Branch of the Penobscot River.

The East Branch of the Penobscot River.

Severance: We’re dealing with big, heady issues like globalization, local versus big government, all at play in this story. In a way, this is ground zero of political discourse in this country. It’s a big responsibility to realize that two very different sides feel so strongly, that they’ve dug in their heels with no compromise and don’t even want to hear each other out. As filmmakers, we’re exploring how that happened, what fueled the fire of divisiveness.

Besaw: We’ve been filming both sides, concentrating on portraying the common humanity between them. This election was a prime example of how people’s anger motivated them to refuse to listen to debate. We hope our film will be a catalyst, even in a small way, to seeing something in common with the other side, to have some compassion and see some commonality. We consciously tried to follow people who have every perspective, and we feel the audience will feel some fondness for them all, no matter how they feel about the park.

Look for “The Mountain and the Magic City” to make the rounds of film festivals and local screens in early 2018. In the meantime, to learn more about the film, the ongoing debate about the proposed national park, or to donate money to help the filmmakers complete their vision, check out the film’s website,

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