The Paradox of Seabrook Farms

The Paradox of Seabrook Farms

Shattered dreams. Restored hopes.


A documentary by

The paradox of Seabrook Farms is a new project by Helga Merits. The film sheds light on the puzzling history of the Seabrook family and their factory workers; people of different countries and cultural backgrounds who had no other place to go to.

The history of the Seabrook family who created Seabrook Farms is similar to a Greek tragedy of betrayal — of creating and destroying possibilities — where behind the scenes, each with their own heart-breaking story, a diverse community of refugees and immigrants lived and worked.

In the 1950s Seabrook Farms was the biggest frozen food processing plant in the world and it needed farm and factory labour. The largest group of workers consisted of over 2,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned during the first years of the Second World War and had been looking for a new place to live. After the war refugees from many countries in Europe came to Sea-brook Farms, amongst them were some 900 Estonians and 200 Latvians.

They all had lost their homes and had to start again. Working at Seabrook farms meant seven day weeks with ever changing shifts, work that was both physically and mentally draining. Amongst all the hardships they still found ways to keep up their cultural traditions and create new possibilities for their children.

At the same time jealousy and distrust drove the Seabrook family apart. Instead of creating a future for his sons, Mr Seabrook took it away from them.

Geislingen Snippet 1
Geislingen Snippet 2

There are strong parallels to the current political climate and the difficulties large numbers of refugees encounter to find a place to live and build up a new life for their families.

Some media coverage about the film:

Thinking of Valdis Basens (1946-2020)


When I opened my e-mail box in the early morning of the 17th of May I saw I had received a message of Marilem Ferentinos. The subject was Valdis and I could see the first line: It is with deep sorrow... And then I knew, but just couldn’t believe it.

I met Valdis at the gala banquet in Boston in 2018, which was part of the Baltic Centennial celebrations. I’m almost tempted to say we met on the dancefloor, but this was not the case, as he was introduced to me by Marilem, one of the organisers, at the dinner table.  But yes later, we danced; we all danced.

Next morning I went with Valdis and Marilem to the Paramount theatre where my film about Geislingen was being screened. There they introduced me to their friends, who were all so familiar with one another, having grown up at the same place: Seabrook Farms.

I listened to the stories about this farm, which was in fact a plant, and the life they had lived there. Valdis knew names, numbers, could add details to memories. He seemed to remember everything and he had so much to tell that we moved from the theatre to a café to continue the conversation.

Not long after that meeting I decided to make a film about Seabrook Farms. Straight away I started to organise research and a trip to Seabrook but Valdis was always a step ahead of me, suggesting literature, places to visit and people I really needed to speak to. I never had such an enthusiastic and helpful introduction to a subject I wanted to make a film about.

He sent elaborate e-mails and while he apologised that these were getting far too long, (he wrote: You are probably gasping, "Oh, no!  Another e-mail from Valdis!" ) it didn’t prevent him from writing many more long messages, which, by the way, were a joy to receive.

The result was a perfectly organised trip to Seabrook. But you can’t be in control of everything. Valdis warned: There is a big storm that will be working its way up north from the Bahamas and may or may not affect travelling conditions along the East Coast during the next week or so.  Let's hope for the best.

We all arrived safe and sound. Together with Marilem and Indrek Ojamaa, who had also been raised in Seabrook, and the camera crew, we could stay at the house of Robert Dragotta. The days were warm, even hot and humid. We worked long hours, but nonetheless it felt like a summer camp.

Thinking of Valdis Basens (1946-2020)

As good an organiser as Valdis was, when it came to practical matters he seemed somewhat helpless. The best way, we found, to organise the evenings was to sit him at the table, with a glass of wine and while we organised the kitchen, we let him tell his stories.

Towards the end of the afternoon, on the last day in Robert’s house, I had planned to film an interview with Valdis, Marilem and Indrek.  I wanted to film in the gazebo, an idyllic, romantic place, surrounded by water.

The weather forecasts showed that a storm was heading in our direction, and was expected around 8 p.m. We would have two hours to record the stories, as it was not quite 6 o’clock but when we sat down, lights all ready and microphones set up, a sudden gust of wind made the lamps swing and spoil the shot. The storm had arrived early and we were too late.

We were expecting friends for dinner but we all thought we would have time to do the interviews if we were quick, so we ran into the kitchen and set up camera and lights. We made do without the beautiful gazebo and treated the filming like a dry run for a later date, when we would redo the interviews in a better location. We were all convinced there would still be time. Little did we know….

Valdis introduced me to the history of Seabrook, the communities, the places, in such a way that he made it easy for me to carry on without him. But I still have many questions I would have loved to ask him. I know I will miss the stories he would have told. I know I’m going to miss his warm and charming personality.

But I know as well, that when we are able to continue the project again, he will certainly be with us in some way.

Thinking of Valdis Basens (1946-2020)

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The Film Makers


Helga Merits


Helga Merits

Shattered dreams, restored hopes. The Paradox of Seabrook Farms will be my sixth documentary film. All my films are related to people who are uprooted due to the war and need to build a new life in unfamiliar places. How do you keep on going? How do you build a new life? Do you keep connected to the past or is it better just to focus on the future? These are questions which interest me.

My first film was about my Estonian father, who also had to leave his country. My debut film was a trial to see if I could bring to life my father’s unknown past by the few texts and letters I had inherited. For this film, Kallis Paul (Dear Paul) (2007) I received the Theodor Luts prize.

I felt that I was not done, and needed to explore my dad further and made a film about the high school class of my father, Class of 1943- remember us when we are gone (2012), is about the fate of boys who were all constricted to German army of 1943.

While doing research in Poland for Class of 1943- remember us when we are gone, I discovered Sam Freiman, a Polish Jew, living in Great Britain, a man who was born and raised in a small village near Warsaw. From my relationship with Sam a documentary about his youth: Sam Freiman – memories of a lost world (2010) was born.

In 2015 I finished a film about a remarkable institute: the Baltic University. This was a university created by refugees of the three Baltic Countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Hamburg in 1946. Although they didn’t have a penny to their name and Hamburg was in ruins, even though they were homeless, they still had the courage to think about a way to organise education for students of the Baltic Countries. The film is titled: The Story of the Baltic University. I received the medal of the Baltic Assembly for this film.

In 2018 I finished Coming Home Soon – the refugee children of Geislingen. This film is about Estonian refugees who lived all together in camp Geislingen during 1945-1950. It is a film about the history of Estonia, but also about refugees in post-war Germany. It is a film about people who needed to go on and live with the consequences of their choices, the war, forced upon them. The film has a strong link with the current situation in Europe.

My background is a study of philosophy (University of Amsterdam). I worked for years as a journalist for national radio both in Belgium and Holland and wrote for newspapers in both countries. But what I missed was a way to visualise the stories, to bring these to life, to work with another dimension. This is the reason I started to work on my first documentary; working with image, sound, and text allows me to create powerful stories while still continuously learning how these mediums influence one another.


Leo van Emden


Leo van Emden

I have been a (ballet) dancer, performer, production and performance manager for more than 20 years before I became a filmmaker. Since 2012 I have worked as an independent filmmaker (direction, edit, camera. & education). My company is called Roemfilm.

The edit for the documentary The Story of The Baltic University was my first cooperation with Helga Merits, an adventure where I first came into contact with stories of refugees from the Baltic countries and their experiences during and after the Second World War. This beautiful project was followed by a second project Coming Home Soon.

In both projects I saw a lot of common ground with my own background, it was also disconcerting to discover that there is a lot of common ground with refugees today. The stories are still very up-to-date: black-and-white images made way for colour and people are fleeing from a different direction, but every story has so many similarities: the impact on the lives of the people is enormous and history seems to be constantly recurring. All stories are far from being told and these truths need to be told.

Working with Helga is good, we have a harmonious and cooperative relationship and it has led to personal substantive enrichment. It has given me new insights into how you look, and think about history.

The research and work Helga is doing to make all the ends meet is enormous. Both, for the existing documentaries and the new film we currently working: The paradox of Seabrook Farms. To bring together, and bundle, all material is a beautiful adventure. You slowly see a sketch become a fully-fledged painting that, as it were, slowly comes to you from afar.

For me working with elderly generation allows me to empathize with a completely different dynamic and search for a rhythm and timing that fits. No matter how often you look at a part of the interview, you always see more and more layers, there is so much behind those eyes and there is so much said without words...

The new film is an even more challenging adventure for me as it goes a step further than the two projects before. For this project I look forward to edit and also film on location with Helga. I am curious to hear the stories of the people and the story of Seabrook Farms.


Peter van Os


Peter van Os

As composer and improvisor, I’m interested in adding music to theatre, (dance-) performances, texts and films.

Very much interested in the history and music of the 20th century, I combine contemporary composing techniques with folklore influences.

It started in 2000, when I made my first score for the documentary film on the life of Tsechian poet: Bohumil Hrabel for Dutch television. This is where I first used folklore instruments (cymbalon, accordion, violin), folklore musical elements, and transformed them into an abstract soundscape.

For large orchestra (strings, wind and piano-solo) I combined “twelve-tone technique” with classical harmony in: Novecento, a theatre performance after A. Barrico’s novel.

I graduated from the Hilversum/Amsterdam conservatory on the accordion. Besides I studied arranging and music-theory. I master a wide range of musical idioms and skills, and the scope of my musical preferences ranges from contemporary classical to Balkan and theatre – music. I’ve performed contemporary orchestral music with several Dutch symphony orchestras. (works from Hans Werner Henze, Zappa, Janacek, Shostakovitch) and I made recordings of original works for accordion and bass-clarinet from Dutch composers Jacob ter Veldhuis and Daan Manneke.

For Merits Productions I already made two scores, The story of the Baltic University and Coming Home Soon.

In both films I transformed Estonian and German folklore melody’s to a “wider tonality”. I was challenged to find sounds, melody’s, musical colours and silence that would support text and images of the film.

And now I’m looking forward to compose for Helga Merits next film! Situated in the “new world”, where refugees are trying to find a new way of life, in new surroundings.

New musical surroundings for me as composer: being aware of, and so avoiding “cliché’s”, I will try to find my inspiration in specific sounds of America, in combination with the music from the cultural background of the refugees. Together with spoken word and silence, I hope the music will support or counter the images where necessary, or will just be a moment of reflection. A challenging exploration again!


Madeline Becker


Madeline Becker

Film is an intersection where image, movement, sound, and the depth of our human experience meet. It's a medium unlike any other that demands the maker to be fully present in the moment. Before I started working with film and video, I trained as a painter with a foundation in drawing and painting from life. My studio practice has recently evolved to working with needle, thread, light, found objects, and trash to create masquerade masks and free-hanging sculptures that imitate fences and walls. My art practice informs my work as a cinematographer.

The paradox of Seabrook Farms will be the third feature documentary I have worked on. I first learned about documentary from working as an assistant editor on Amy Scott's film Oyler: One School One Year from 2013-2015. Watching, organizing, and prepping the footage taught me not only about the post-production process, but also what shots are needed to make the editor's job easier. In 2016, I started filming my own documentary, Middleman. In 2017, I started Mad Queen Productions, a video production company, which partners with other companies with a goal of growing a strong and sustainable film community in Baltimore City.

I learned the ropes of the film industry by working as a production assistant in New York City and Baltimore. Productions ranged from features, such Benh Zeitlin’s upcoming film Wendy (2019), to Matthew Porterfield’s Sollers Point (2017), to commercials, PSAs, and music videos for artists such as Arcade Fire, Maggie Rogers, and Beach House. After years of working in production, in 2019 I joined the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 487. I work in the electric department on large sets for network television.

The paradox of Seabrook Farms film is the first time I have worked with Helga. Seabrook, New Jersey is a hidden gem. Our first week filming there was a surreal and deep experience. The stories of the Estonian refugees, immigrants from around the world, and the detained Japanese Americans are humbling and inspiring. The level of research and the depth of the relationships Helga has built to tell the story of Seabrook is astounding. Many of our interviews were with different generations of refugees, immigrants, and Japanese interns. It is important to capture these stories before our oldest generation passes. Helga is capturing time and history by piecing together the insight of ages. I am excited to continue working with Helga and follow where the winding path leads.


Shawn Chia

Camera Assistant

Shawn Chia

Shawn Chia is currently in his final at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), working towards a BFA degree with a major in Film and Video. His works mostly exist on the narrative plane, more so short films at the present moment — small windows into larger stories that he would like to delve in deeper someday after college. Shawn’s favourite spot on set is behind the camera. Shawn tinkers around with production gear during his down time at the JHUMICA Film Centre Equipment Cage, because he is a huge nerd with lights and cameras. He believes that in an alternate reality somewhere, there exists a Shawn that went to culinary school instead.


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