David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s finely detailed documentary “Downeast” immerses itself in Gouldsboro, Maine. It’s a fishing town that was also home to the Stinson Seafood sardine cannery, the last such operation in the United States (there once were as many as 75). The film begins by taking in its last days. The cannery closed in 2010. So the contemplative shots — of fish being caught, fish bulleting out of chutes into vats of thousands of other fish, fish being sliced and sawed at the cannery — achieve the power of visual eulogy. That lasts a few minutes.
The film then watches as the cannery’s new owner, Antonio Bussone, an Italian immigrant from Boston, attempts to turn the old space into a lobster-processing facility. (As the cannery is transformed into the processing plant, the musical score matches the industry of the drilling and scraping and hammering and punching.) Bussone doesn’t have an easy time. His competition doesn’t want him to receive a $200,000 federal grant, and many of those opponents appear to be in a position to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Redmon and Sabin spend time with Dana Rice, the selectman approving the application for the grant, who is also a lobster buyer and doesn’t like Bussone’s processing lobsters purchased from other fishermen. The potential encroachment makes Rice’s toes hurt. “Why subsidize something we’re sure is going to be a failure?,” he asks casually but not entirely in innocence. It doesn’t matter to Rice and some of his fellow selectmen that Bussone plans to employ about a hundred workers, including the elderly women who used to handle fish at the cannery. Nor does it seem to matter that the townspeople, eager for jobs, vote unanimously to submit the application for the grant. Rice’s board sits on its hands, leaving the voters frustrated and distrustful of the electoral process — and the selectmen, with their conflicts of interest, resentful of the voters.
The movie, with its transparent observation and unwavering melancholy, becomes a discreetly dramatic 77-minute microcosm through which you can appreciate different facets of the country’s mood. It’s all here: contempt for a government perceived as overreaching and the self-interested aspect of certain kinds of libertarianism; people’s desire and need for work; senior citizens who can’t afford to retire; financial overextension; the vicissitudes of local manufacturing; job creation versus shipping work somewhere else (in this case, to Canada); and the extremely stressful crapshoot that small business can be. There’s also the matter of democratic inefficacy, in which the voters are told their votes do not matter. This deeply sobering local part speaks for a national whole.
It’s refreshing to watch two nonfiction filmmakers return to an old style of moviemaking, to a patient kind of on-the-ground observation that quietly meets up with larger themes. Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990) did this with finesse and thunder. “Downeast” is a film in that vein. Redmon and Sabin approach both the people of Gouldsboro and Bussone’s determination — to provide jobs; to disarm the local fishing apparatus and a skeptical town; to succeed — with the same absorbing solemnity. They’ve given us an elegy for a vanishing emblem of what once characterized this country’s vitality.