When the last sardine cannery closes its doors in a small town of Maine, Italian entrepreneur Antonio Bussone steps in to purchase the facility and run one of the only lobster processing plants in the United States. While the lobster is caught by local fishermen in town, most processing takes place in large-scale industrial plants in Canada (subsidized by the government) before it's shipped again down Route 95 to Boston and elsewhere for retail. Bussone's venture provides hope for the many town residents struggling after losing their jobs at the sardine cannery, but when his bank refuses to cooperate in financing, he is threatened with failure.
The film underscores many struggles of the U.S. food system and economy: to build local economies and keep food production local, more efficient and fresh. Incidentally, it premieres right on the heels of an announcement from Red Lobster's parent company Darden on first-ever industrial lobster farm, which is projected to produce more than 40 tons of lobster for their restaurants in Malaysia.
David and Ashley plan to release three more feature-length documentaries in the next couple years that tell the story of Downeast in vastly different styles. While in town for the Tribeca, David spoke with us about the making of the film and what's to come.
How did you come across your subject matter for Downeast?
We read about the sardine factory closing in the New York Times, and we were curious about that. So we went up to Maine and moved there for a while to find out what was happening with it, and ultimately Antonio came into the picture.
It was interesting watching lobster, usually depicted as this luxury item dipped in butter, in a context where old ladies are squeezing their meat out of the knuckles for hours at the plant. What did they think of the lobster, and did they get to eat it, too?
Well most of those women had been employed at the sardine cannery before, and they didn't really eat much sardines. But lobster was new, and now and then they would make jokes like, "wow, I would really like to take some of this home."
The film seems a character study of the Downeast Maine personality, but its main character is an Italian; do you think this had anything to do with his failure?
Yeah. We interviewed lobstermen and locals and it was split down the middle; a lot were overly racist but we didn't want to put in the movie because it would be reductionist. But the simple explanation is that he's an outsider, he has a very strange language, he's not from Maine or Boston but Italy. So he had that stacked against him. But we didn't want to focus on that because he was also competing with the Canadians, which has government-subsidized lobster processing, and he has to compete with them, and make his American-made product viable and competitive in the market.
It seems like the villain in this story was the bank. Do you think that it's telling of U.S. banks or policies that it wasn't participating or encouraging new businesses enough?
It's interesting, I wish I had interviewed the bank, but they were not interested in allowing us to talk to them even after Antonio gave written permission. But the rumor is that a bigger buyer came in, and they were offering money on the plant and because Antonio wasn't turning a profit quickly enough and they put the crunch on him and shut it down after less than a year. Then two days after the bank froze his assets, there was an announcement that five international buyers were coming in to process lobsters in Maine. So it was either a coincidence but it's hard to say.
So what's happening now with this shuttered lobster factory and all the unemployed people in this small town now?
Basically, Antonio went bankrupt and he's about to file for Chapter 11. The bank seized his money and it's a very sad story, he's going to lose everything – his home, property, etc. This is going to affect everything, his family life, and I don't really want to kick him when he's down. So that's the power the bank wields. If it's true they made this whimsical decision to bait him, and then they pull out of financing, a little guy like Antonio is unable to go up there and sue the bank, he doesn't have the money. It not only affects him but the entire region, and the 150 people who are working at the factory. So that industry is really what what sustains that region or community, it's also what severs it or rips it apart.
Find out about more screenings of Downeast and other films by David and Ashley at CarnivalesqueFilms.com.