‘Downeast’ at Boston Independent Film Festival

Our heart is going as fast as possible.

–Antonio Bussone

Downeast begins with an ending, the final days of production at the Stinson Cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. A series of shots show sardines spewing from a chute into a weird and slimy vortex of fishness, then dropped onto conveyor belts, where they’re sorted by hand into little square cans, sealed and wet and shiny. Then come the long shots, of metal lockers relocated, clattering on flat trucks, a cable dragging, an empty factory room, the floor wiped clean.

“That was a big blow when they closed that factory down, to everybody around here, definitely me,” says Pete, “And my wife, you know, we worked there all them years.” He shows a small card with handwriting: “2 cans of the last sardines packed @ Stinsons 4/15/10.” Then he holds up one of those cans, red, white, and blue, with a lighthouse logo, a keepsake. Cut to his wife, Arlene, who eats toast and jam and plays a video slot game on her computer: the camera is unsteady over her shoulder, peering at her screen as she explains, “I’ve got $282,000, fake money.”

Their too-familiar story — they can’t afford to retire and they can’t find work — is at the center of Downeast, the extraordinary new documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Recently showed at the Tribeca Film Festival and screening on 29 April at the Boston Independent Film Festival, where the filmmakers will be on hand to answer questions, the film connects Pete’s story to those of Gouldsboro harbormaster and chairman of the Board of Selectmen Dana Price and Antonio Bussone, who arrives in town with plans to open the Live Lobster Company, the first lobster factory in the United States, at the Stinson site.

It sounds like a good idea. As Antonio explains it, Live Lobster will help the local economy. The camera shows snowy roads and a red truck passing in the distance, then a title that explains he’s applying for a $200,000 federal grant to get the business off the ground. Another card reads, “Antonio hopes to hire sardine factory employees,” just before that red truck, now loud in a close shot, drives abruptly across the screen, a live action wipe. It’s an effectively abstract hint of the trouble to come, a convergence of factors ranging from bank financing to local resistance.

Initially, people like Pete and Arlene, and Nancy and Josie (“I cried for two weeks when that factory closed,” Nancy says, “When that factory closed, it took a lot”), welcome the idea: Live Lobster means 40 new jobs in the community, just to start. But the town selectmen, headed by Dana, are suspicious; they intend to vote against approving the grant application, even though the townspeople vote for it. During a meeting at the Town Office, Antonio is surprised at their opposition, complaining, “If I step out of bounds half an inch, everybody’s bound to shoot me, ‘You’re out of bounds.'” The men at the table nod. “That’s what happens, downeast.”

This notion of “downeast” — as a community identity, a way of doing things, an attitude — seems to shape the obstacles mounting before Antonio. Dana insists that his objections don’t have anything to do with his own position as a lobster dealer. Downeasters don’t like to “budge much,” especially when it comes to what they’re used to. Dana objects to the grant application on principle: “State government and federal government should not be in business,” he explains, “That isn’t their role. Call me a libertarian or goddam crank or whatever you want to.” He gazes into the camera, resolute — or maybe wondering what’s coming next.

Repeatedly, the film frames ideas of past, present, and future. In Dana’s office, he and the camera pause at the same moment on a framed picture of a fishing vessel, asea. With his face reflected in the glass, superimposed over the ship, the filmmaker asks from off-screen whether it’s “the reflection of the past.” Dana shakes his head, “I get accused of living in the past, but I don’t,” he says, then leaves the shot to answer a phone. He’s moving forward,” he says, and as he speaks to his caller rather than his interviewer, the camera swings around to observe him, at a distance.

For Antonio, the stakes are both different and the same: he too asserts essential values in his venture, and he too appears to be caught between multiple roles. In his office, a barely furnished box of a site, he’s also asked a question from off-screen, that is, why he cares about this Live Lobster factory. “It’s my life business,” he begins, then layers his won answer, “It’s not business, business is personal, an expression of yourself.” As he turns away from the interviewer to a phone conversation about that business, he has his own question for his caller: “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Neither of these scenes comes with a detailed context: you don’t know who’s called or what’s at issue in the calls. Instead, they create a simultaneously abstract and vividly material impression, that the world beyond the film’s frame shapes all decisions and effects, a world of financing and paychecks, international agreements (lobster has for years been processed over the border in Canada) and local votes. But even as the forces operate off-screen, closing factories (“Since 2001,” the film reports, “More than 132,000 factories have left the United States, resulting in a loss of 6 million jobs”), what you do see in Downeast is almost unbearably intimate.

The film’s focus is on the effects of lost jobs and lost futures, at the work of not working. This focus is sometimes specific, as when Antonio’s wife offers her perspective of what’s going wrong (she doesn’t want him to “quit,” she says, “I wouldn’t call it quit,” but he’s stretched thin, between feeling guilty over not spending enough time with his children and spending so much time with his workers, to no avail: “There’s no way we can get out”). The focus is specific in another way, when the film shows the lobster factory workers, in tight closeups, the women who remove the shells, the men who de-tail, their faces flecked with lobster muck, their hair netted, their expressions set. They tell Antonio they appreciate his factory, they love the job: “We’ve all got a stake in this, we all want you to succeed.” They don’t tell him that they dread what might come next. But you know they do.

RATING 10 / 10