Downeast is about what at first sounds like the most boring possible cinematic subject: rebuilding a destitute fish cannery. And yet it’s anything but. Filmmaker David Redmon and Ashley Sabin manage to pack politics, economics, and a large dollop of human interest into their seventy-six minute film. Though it’s not without its significant problems, Downeast brings light to the desperate economic situation this country is still in via a corner of the map, Down East, Maine, an area practically unknown to most people south of New Hampshire’s border.
Redmon and Sabin focus their story on Antonio Bussone, an Italian expat who runs a lobster company near Boston and decides to refurbish a factory in remote Gouldsboro, Maine, in order to sell canned lobster meat. 128 of the town’s residents, most of whom are women over sixty-five, were employed at the factory before it shut down a couple years ago–they’re eager to get back to work.
Retirement isn’t an option in Maine’s Down East region; like most rural places around the country, the economic situation in Gouldsboro is beyond bleak.
When Bussone rides into town with big plans but not a lot of capital, he applies for federal grants and loans to get his factory up and running. The most poignant moments in Downeast stem from footage of Gouldsboro town hall meetings in which residents urge their town Selectmen (the equivalent of city council members) to approve Bussone’s application for the grant money. The film implies, heavily, that the Selectmen’s reluctance to award Bussone the money, and allow him to reinstitute many of the residents’ jobs, stems from their vested interest in keeping him out of the lucrative lobster market.
Though Redmon and Sabin don’t quite demonize anyone, Bussone’s image is treated with kid gloves while the reputations of some of the lifelong Gouldsboro residents are, at least implicitly, impugned.
The best parts of Downeast are precisely those that focus on the Gouldsboro folks, especially the women–feisty and dignified–several of whom are over seventy years old. They want to feel like they’re contributing to something. One brags about having worked at the old factory for thirteen years straight, often seven days a week, before she took a sick day. “The job comes first,” she quips.
Another one glumly remarks about her lack of health insurance, despite her having put in forty-four years of labor at the former cannery. The unfairness of the economic downturn hits you square in the gut; if ever there were anyone deserving of a handout, it’s these people—though, of course, they’d probably refuse it staunchly.
The filmmakers’ reluctance to show the full picture of a complex situation is disconcerting. For instance, they neglect to mention the fact that Dana Rice, head Selectman of Gouldsboro and the presumed villain of the piece, actually recused himself from the vote on the federal grant funds because of his competing interest in the local lobster trade. Instead he’s made to look a fool, prattling on in one scene about how Eastern Maine should secede from the rest of the state, because that makes the film’s story easier to understand.
In a documentary clocking in at an hour and a quarter Redmon and Sabin could have spent an extra fifteen minutes fleshing out the details of their story without sacrificing pacing or affect. Downeast will grab you, although Redmon and Sabin took the risk of simplifying their story at the expense of factual accuracy.