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Downeast is the kind of documentary that you watch and become engrossed in even though the subject matter seems unengrossing. It’s about the town of Gouldsboro, Maine; the closing of its Stinson Sardine plant; and the attempt of a Boston businessman to start a lobster processing plant on the same location. Most of the people who worked at the sardine plant had been there for decades and have no other skills. On top of that, no one can afford to retire. What Antonio Bussone’s new business may mean for the people of the town is dignity and self-sufficiency, even late in life.
Perhaps the reason the film is so engrossing is Antonio Bussone’s approach to business: “People say ‘business is business.’ No it’s not — business is personal.”
Director: David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
Release Date: TBD
In addition to paying the bills, jobs are often about dignity and community. When several of the elderly sardine workers in Downeast reflect on their old factory, there’s a sense that they miss the camaraderie as much as the work. They refer to their co-workers as family, and if you’ve been there with the same people for decades, it’s not hard to understand why. Watching them sit idly during the interviews, I sensed a certain restlessness in them, like they really wanted to get out there and earn their keep if someone would just let them.
Even the face of the community changes a bit with the loss of the sardine plant. There’s a tall, wooden fisherman in a rain slicker at edge of town. When the Stinson cannery was in full swing (it was the last sardine cannery in America), the fisherman proudly held an over-sized can of Stinson Sardines. The can’s no more once the factory’s gone. If it lingered there a while after the factory’s closing, it must have been a sad reminder of the death of industry, though thankfully the hit to Gouldsboro doesn’t seem as bad as the hit Flint, Michigan took once GM shuttered its doors.
Bussone’s essentially the hero of the film. By using the factory space to process lobsters, he hopes to bring jobs to Gouldsboro at a supposed savings to consumers. Most lobster caught in the northeast is sent to Canada for processing rather than kept in the United States. He even wants to rehire former Sinton employees if they’re interested. (They are, if you couldn’t guess.)
But the high-minded idea that business is personal comes up against a number of other obstacles. The plant’s a major investment given the amount of work required to convert it. The funds are not all there at the outset, though some federal money is fought over. Bussone’s adamant, as are some of the locals who show up to town meetings to get the lobster plant off the ground.
Part of the problem rests with the mayor of Gouldsboro, who has his own lobster interests to look out for. Even the most ardent idealist would crumble given those stakes. It’s “business is personal” against “all politics is local,” essentially. The mayor is surprisingly candid about his feelings for Bussone and his plant, and the townspeople are candid about their feelings on the local politicians.
Gouldsboro’s not necessarily a microcosm of America, but the town’s circumstances do reflect the larger, national difficulties that business ventures face, and how a sense of doing what’s right isn’t sufficient to sustain a working business. Bussone is constantly struggling throughout the film. Maybe the moral obligations we have to people and their communities are worth the risk of financial failure.
That may be the most compelling part about Downeast for me. You have all of these competing wants, and for Bussone the driving force seems to be wanting to do what’s right for Gouldsboro. But that’s never enough on its own. With each struggle, I began to think he was in over his head. His gusto and his idealism remains admirable, however. Maybe I like people who risk for the right reasons, and admire their endurance when things go wrong.
There are a number of great images in Downeast to reflect this sense of triumph and failure. The wooden fisherman, for one, who undergoes a makeover. There are the dead sardines getting poured into vats at the Stinson plant. And you can’t have talk of lobsters without hollowed out lobster shells. Some of them we see piled out as hills mingled in the dirt, the whole mound of dark red and black steaming.
It’s as if images of the fishing and lobstering world were ready-made for dreams that might fizzle, crumble, or not go as well as they could have. Even still, there are good people involved in the industry. It’s too bad many of them struggle so hard to stay afloat.