‘Downeast’: Rescuing the American worker takes more than heroism, sadly

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Downeast. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

In 2010, Stinson Sardine Cannery, the last sardine cannery in the United States, located in Gouldsboro, Maine, closed after a century of business, leaving 128 people out of work, and the economy of the area devastated.

Most of the workers had been with the cannery for 30 or 40 years. None of them can afford to retire. Living on unemployment and aching to get back to work, they sign up with the local unemployment center and swap stories. The cannery had been like a family.

Then, in the fall of 2011, Italian immigrant Antonio Bussone, president of Live Lobster out of Boston, bought the empty factory and decided to turn it into a lobster processing plant, putting the elderly unemployed of the area back to work. This story is told in the documentary Downeast, directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.

Currently, lobsters caught in the United States are all sent to Canada for processing. Bussone's idea, to keep that business in the United States, is a revolutionary one, and one you'd expect to have been welcomed with open arms. While some residents of Gouldsboro, like the laid-off sardine workers, are thrilled at the prospect of not only going back to work but in being on the front lines of a new company, there is immediate pushback from local lobster dealers, who perceive Bussone's move as infringing on their very lucrative territory.

The town selectmen, when asked to approve a federal grant to get the processing plant going, override the unanimous vote of the townspeople, which causes much tension in this already depressed town. At the head of all of this is the obsessive and focused Mr. Bussone, bluetooth always attached to his ear, talking directly to the camera in his office in a way that is both disarming and riveting.

"People say business is business," he says, in his gentle Italian accent. "No, it's not. Business is personal."

Bussone came to America as a young man because he did not see any opportunities for himself in Italy.

"I'm American by choice," he says.

Redmon and Sabin beautifully capture the rhythms of the small fishing town: colorful lobster traps piled on the docks in the frigid air, snow driving down through the trees, and the bare-bones offices of the lobster dealers. They interview everyone: Bussone, the sardine workers, the lobster dealers, and one very entertaining and knowledgeable grizzled old lobster fisherman. These people are tough. Lobster dealer Dana Rice, one of the main opponents of Bussone's new plant, does not agree with government subsidization of business and says, "Call me a libertarian or a goddamn crank."

Downeast is elegantly and efficiently edited, the camera moving deliberately and smoothly through the empty factory, its dark concrete space now eloquent with possibility. As the plant starts to become a reality, the sardine workers, who are used to putting sardines into small cans, must now be trained to rip off lobster claws and clean out excess meat. These people are up for anything. One woman just had a knee replacement, and was wondering what it would be like to stand all day. When she sees Mr. Bussone, she comes right up to him and says, "Mr. Bussone, I am sorry, I don't know how to pronounce your name, I just want you to know how glad I am to be here, and how wonderful your plan is. Thank you."

While this may seem like it would be a story of hope, and it is in part, there are dark clouds always on the horizon. One $90,000 check from a client bounces, with catastrophic consequences. Checks Bussone paid to lobster fishermen then start to bounce. The bank freezes his accounts. He mortgages his house. He mortgages his second house. He cannot continue to keep the processing plant going. There will have to be layoffs. This is headline news up and down the New England coast.

Keeping business in the United States is a hot topic now, and Downeast hones in one story of one man who tries to make that dream a reality. It is a local story, but it is also a story of the larger issues facing America today. It is the story of tough "downeasters" who are used to working hard, and who have adjusted to the winds of change through the generations. For decades, a giant cut-out man in a yellow slicker holding a can of sardines has stood outside of Gouldsboro. When the lobster plant opens, the sardine can is painted over to a big red lobster. Those who are in love with the past will perish. Tough times require courage in the face of adversity and a willingness to think outside the box.

Having been to many a boring office party in my day, the scene of the holiday party held at the brand-new plant, with barely a worker under 70 years old, was a revelation, one of the best scenes in the film. Bussone is there, and he is presented with a plaque with two giant shellacked lobsters on it. There is such a sense of celebration and excitement in that bleak office room, and it made me think: Americans by choice like Antonio Bussone, and born-and-bred Americans like these elderly workers, are the best that America has to offer.  Can't we do better for them?

Downeast does not have a happy, tidy ending, because the situation continues to unfold. It is an important film.

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