Downeast tells the story of a shuttered sardine factory in Gouldsboro, Maine — the last of its kind. Italian businessman Antonio Bussone moved himself and his family to Boston and then subsequently bought the factory with plans to both re-open it as a lobster processing plant and to re-hire those unemployed workers, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies.
To gain the trust of the otherwise wary residents, filmmakers A. Sabin and David Redmon (Girl Model, POV 2012), moved to the location. The result is a powerful document about faith versus cynicism. Bussone, a Don Quixote type to be sure, tilts his sword into the windmill and forges ahead putting his entire financial life on the line. And, in keeping with the filmmakers’ past work, we come away from the film with a deep sense of the town of Gouldsboro and its citizens.
Is it typical that you would move and live in the location where you are doing your documentary?
A. Sabin: Yeah, before Girl Model this was the direction we were going, that we would live in the space. It helps with access and trust. It also helps get at the textures: the smells, the accents, the landscape. Those nuances. It really helps inform you when you’re editing.
David Redmon: It definitely helps to establish a sense of place much better than if you are going there episodically, where you go in and you go out. That’s why we move to the locations as much as possible.
Someone else might give more of a sense that they are visiting.
Redmon: That’s what we had to do in Russia when we were filming there. We had to rent hotel — kind of expensive and overbearing.
How did living in Gouldsboro, Maine, pay off for you with this film?
Redmon: Well, when we showed the rough cut to the people in Maine, they said unanimously, that this is, by far, one of the best films they’ve seen shot by an outsider that really captured a sense of place. They were riveted by it. Those little details that we picked up on on a daily basis. So, that really meant something to them.
Can you give an example?
Redmon Sure. The early morning arrival of the commercial boats, when they unload the herring for lobster bait. The fog that comes and go at certain parts of the day.
Were those choices you made because you were living there and those images touched you? Or were those artistic choices?
Sabin: I think a better example is the patterns in certain personalities. You start recognizing those traits. For instance, in the area where we were filming there were a lot of people over the age of 65 or 70 years old. But they have this universal desire to continue working and to be part of a community. I think if you’re always leaving the area, you may see it more as a case-by-case situation. But when you’re living there and you see this as endemic even outside the factory (the film’s primary focus is on the re-booting of a factory), that it’s an entire community, it makes you more comfortable when you’re including that in your story.
So, is it your sense that though they describe their need to work an economic one, that it transcends that?
Redmon: Yeah, that became pretty clear to us early on. It was also a need for companionship and friendship. So when these women — some of whom worked in the factory for up to 47 years — when that factory shut down, they also lost their friends. They were separated and isolated. It was another reason they were hoping that they factory would re-open. It would, in their words, bring back the family.
Something we touched on a moment ago, you wanted to feel trusted You were outsiders yet because of your choices, you were embraced in the end. There’s an interesting symbiotic relationship there with your film’s main subject, Antonio Bussone. He was experiencing the same thing, trying to embed himself in a community as an outsider. Trying to win the trust of this community. Had you thought of that?
Sabin: Yeah, I think that’s why one of the first shots of the film is watching him drive into this town. What became really clear as we were filming was that the workers really wanted Antonio there and then, slowly, the residents of Gouldsboro really wanted him there. So, I think that in the process of filming we saw that trust really building up. It came down to just a few individuals who were opposed to him being there. It was really interesting to see his transformation. But he wasn’t living in the town. He would drive to some of these town meetings all the way from Boston. The meeting would end at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. and he would make the return trip the same night. Something like a 5-hour trip, either direction. The determination on his part to make the business a success.
Sounds like something of a practical choice on his part. He knew that to make the business a success that involved winning over the constituency. Clearly the personal relationships were also an important part of his fiber as well. My favorite line in the movie is “business is personal.” When he said that, a lot of crystallized.
Redmon: And that makes sense for all the workers too. As Antonio said, any kind of work we do is an expression of who we are. It also reinforces a sense of dignity and care about our community.
A central part of the story is that the workers lose their jobs when the sardine factory shuts down and there’s a full year before it re-opens as a lobster processing factory. Not much is explicitly explained or shown about what they went through in that year where they were unemployed. I was wondering about that a lot throughout the film, what they were going through during this period of unemployment.
Redmon: If that’s taken away from you, your self worth is affected. Because if they find value in what they do, and then what they do is taken away, then where are we going to find value in ourselves? Especially if there’s no employment there. You’re seen as having no value. You’re written off. You’re rendered invisible. The only place to go is your local employment center. It’s an existential question.
Plus it’s unique because it’s the only factory in the United States that does that. They say it’s an end of an era for sardines but it’s the beginning of an era for lobsters. It’s one of the first lobster factories. They were really gung ho and on board about trying to get this done in the United States.
I see. So, they became stakeholders.
Redmon: Yeah, I think so. Pride.
Having just recently seen Girl Model, I thought there were some parallels between that film and your latest. While in many ways, these two films are quite different, there are some similarities. They certainly both deal with identity and the workplace. Both Antonio and Ashley (the scout from Girl Model) are both quite ambitious. Did you sense any parallels?
Redmon: More in terms of how they differ actually. Antonio was completely transparent. He gave us complete access. Whereas with Ashley, you just didn’t know what you were getting into. You’d have something planned, you’d show up and it’d be the opposite. She was guarded.
Perhaps that reflected the ambivalence about what she was doing.
Redmon: But I guess they are both entrepreneurs.
Another thing I remember from our last interview was that you didn’t want Girl Model to be interpreted as an exposé on the modeling industry. It was a personal film. With Downeast, it’s more or less the same. These are personal stories, whether it be Antonio’s or the workers who are interviewed. You don’t end up spending too much time focusing on the economy, unemployment or moving jobs out of the country. All issues that you certainly could’ve dealt with. But in the end, neither film is didactic.
Redmon: We trust our audiences to take away whatever issues might be underlying in our films and not have a talking head telling them. We just don’t need that. I think there’s a lot of films out there that do deliver information, a lot of it. With Downeast we try to remove all that information and focus on what the characters were going through.
Sadly, Antonio’s loyalty to his employees and, in turn, their loyalty to him, seems so old-fashioned and out of step with the rest of the country.
Sabin: It’s interesting. We did a bunch of rough-cut screenings before the premiere at Tribeca. We get all these entrepreneurs coming up to us afterwards saying, “Thank you for representing what a small-business owner does.” It seems that big businesses, their practices, have given the small-business owners a bad name. I do think there are a lot of Antonios out there. It’s just that there is a prevalent image of the clinical, non-caring corporation, and that in the end get bailed out. So there’s a frustration with business in general. But what we’re experiencing is that there are a lot of Antonios out there. It’s just not a very popular story right now.
Redmon: I think the zeitgeist at the moment is that most bosses are greedy and self-absorbed who surround themselves with people that will do their bidding.
And that the loyalty is to the board.
Redmon: Right. But in Downeast, the loyalty is clearly to the community because that’s who is hired to help to process the lobsters.
Sabin: Maybe it’s idealistic but I hope that’s more representative of the future here, because that’s what our country’s principals were founded on. You know, that independent spirit. Having the dream and the hope that is tied to small business and the community.