Gouldsboro is a quintessential example of the Downeast region of Maine, the coastal portions of the state’s two easternmost counties. At least its residents would like you to think as much, never passing up an opportunity to explain their personality by way of their geography. It comes up again and again at town meetings in David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Downeast, the most cited reason by locals to explain their gruff resistance to the business plans of Italian-Bostonian entrepreneur Antonio Bussone. His struggles to reopen a failed sardine cannery as a lobster processing plant compose the film’s primary narrative thread, but it’s an equally perceptive portrait of the community as a whole, an aging town of working class Mainers hit hard by the decline of American industry.
Redmon and Sabin’s work is the subject of a Doc Alliance online retrospective, which includes five of the documentarian duo’s seven feature films. The films are available to stream for free through Sunday, November 29th. Three of them take place in Louisiana, two of them in Gouldsboro. Downeast and Night Labor were filmed at the same time, though they premiered in consecutive years. They even share a central image, among the most strikingly colorful of any of Redmon and Sabin’s films.
It’s a shot taken from the floor, under a table at Bussone’s newly reopened lobster processing plant. The bottom third of the frame is full of bright red, empty lobster parts. Above these chunks of exoskeleton are bright red buckets, obscuring the feet of the workers. In the distance are yellow boxes, presumably where the husked shellfish will end up. Everywhere else is white and blue, the walls and the floor, the aprons and boots of the staff. It’s a bold example of the many images rich with primary colors that populate both Gouldsboro features.
In Downeast the emphasis is on the women at the table, hidden from this particular shot but very familiar to the audience from the previous hour of interview footage and workplace scenes. Many of them worked at this very plant for decades in its earlier incarnation and have returned with a determined and positive attitude. Most of them are senior citizens. This shot, a vibrant proof of their labor, is a celebration of long-awaited employment relief for a workforce on the brink of poverty.
In Night Labor, however, this very same image is the culmination of a very different workday. That film, shorter and more impressionistically directed, is a portrait of Sherman Frank Merchant, the middle-aged man who takes care of the plant at night. More than simply a watchman, he processes his own fish and sets up the tables and buckets for the workers that arrive first thing in the morning. The above shot arrives in Night Labor as a herald of its conclusion. Merchant watches the brightly lit lobster shucking through a small window in the room’s heavy door, crucial to the the day-to-day business of the plant but excluded from its communal atmosphere.
He’s also a very entertaining character, texturing the colorful factory landscape with his gruff voice and occasionally incomprehensible murmurings. While he’s certainly performing for the camera, it’s easy to believe that he talks to himself through the night even when Redmon and Sabin aren’t around. “Dead fish don’t talk,” he muses, as he cuts the guts out of mackerel. His solitary world, alternating between the vast open spaces of coastal Maine and the wide, empty rooms of the nocturnal plant, is a perfect counterpoint to Downeast’s community portrait.
After all, no single documentary of any location can capture its full scope, no matter how tiny its subject. Neither can two, not really. As of the last census, Gouldsboro has a population of 1,737. Even a remote rural place like this has at least that many perspectives, let alone those of the birds above and the fish in the buckets below. Downeast and Night Labor taken together aren’t the last word on Maine. But with the combined effect of these two films, Redmon and Sabin show the lived diversity and shared beauty of a single town with empathetic skill and a real eye for color.