Putting crony capitalism in the crosshairs, “Downeast” offers up America’s financial crisis in microcosm: When an economically stressed-out town in Maine is offered a way out of its hardship, the town’s own elected officials try to torpedo the plan. The reasons for this will likely attract politically minded auds and public TV outfits to a project that’s as pugnacious as it is intimate, and as scrappily political as it is incongruously lovely to look at.
About a year before docu helmers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (“Mardi Gras: Made in China,” “Girl Model”) arrived in Gouldsboro, Maine, Bumble Bee Foods closed down the Stinson Seafood plant, which was not only the locality’s leading employer but also the last sardine-packing operation in the United States. The closing of Stinson resulted in the firing of about 100 mostly older locals, and the relocation of sardine operations to Canada.
Enter Antonio Bussone, of Massachusetts-based Live Lobster, who sought to convert the sardine plant into a lobster-packing facility, and rehire the laid-off workers. With the federal government poised to give Bussone and the town a $250,000 federal grant intended to help revive the local economy, Gouldsboro seems to be on a lobster roll — but not according to town fathers, like Dana Rice, who is not only a local selectman but also Bussone’s likely competition. Why would the town board, many of whose members are in the lobster business, want to help a rival? The answers are as obvious as the film’s moral lessons.
While it suffers somewhat from being a microbudget, virtually DIY production, the docu offers up an affectionate and revealing portrait of the people of Gouldsboro, the frustrated Bussone and the tradition-rich fish-packing business itself. As plans get under way to restaff the plant, positions are filled according to sex: Women have always been packers and are thought to be better suited to packing, so when packers are needed, the jobs go to women. It’s almost quaint.
Lending the film a measure of tension are Bussone’s ongoing tribulations as he tries to circumvent the board and raise his funding amid bouncing checks and locals who treat him not as a savior, but as a suspect. The Gouldsboro officials, having gotten in the way of the federal grant (which needs town approval), point to Bussone’s financial difficulties as proof he doesn’t deserve the grant. It may be small-town politics, but the audacity and illogic are of epic proportions and perhaps national importance.
Redmon and Sabin’s last film, “Girl Model,” about Siberian teenagers exported to and exploited in Japan, had such a rough-and-tumble aesthetic that the visual loveliness of “Downeast” is a surprise and a treat. Some of the subjects themselves may not be much of an advertisement for Maine, but the film itself certainly is.
Lensing aside, tech credits are mixed.