For most of us here at Emory, it’s difficult to grasp the concept of going straight from high school to a full-time job — especially when that job is one as strenuous as lobstering. But that’s the path in life chosen by many residents of Deer Isle and Stonington, Maine, two towns that comprise an island slightly off the coast, and the hometown of 2009 Emory graduate Iain Martin, independent director of the newly-released documentary “Life by Lobster.” The documentary addresses the conflict that Maine’s lobstermen face in pursuing a tradition that is prided by the community and yet constantly challenged by economical and social pressures.
Though only 55 minutes long, the documentary is telling. The lobstermen — young men who graduated alongside Martin from Deer Isle Stonington High School — reveal their hopes and worries for their own futures, as well as the future of lobstering, to the camera. With scenes of lobstermen drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and joking around while discussing the hardships of a day on the job, the film feels more like a voyeuristic peek into the lives of lobstermen than an average Q&A-style documentary. Their commentary is further complemented by well-framed shots of Maine’s beautiful seacoast and an acoustic, folksy soundtrack by local Atlanta artists such as Joe McGuinness and Sean Costello.
“Life by Lobster” has been in the making for more than three years, since the summer after Martin’s freshman year at Emory. Martin originally wanted to expose the way of life that he was immersed in while growing up, to describe the struggle faced by lobstermen as “something that has been on my doorstep all along.” But what began as a small-scale project filmed with a camcorder Martin’s parents bought him as a present quickly evolved into something much bigger. Contributing to the growth of Martin’s documentary was the addition of producer R. Miller Tobin (“Gossip Girl”), who joined the project quite organically. Tobin owns a summerhouse on the island across the road from Martin’s childhood home; the two met and quickly became friends, and Tobin joined Martin’s project soon afterward.
“It immediately peaked my interest because I had considered doing the same thing many years ago, but I was wrestling with this idea of access,” Tobin explains. With both Stonington and Deer Isle combined, the island still only has little more than 3,000 residents, so it was necessary for Tobin to find a year-long “Mainer” whom the tight-knit local community could identify with and trust.
“I grew up on the coast of Maine. All these guys are close friends of mine,” Martin explains of his relationship with the subjects of the documentary. “It wasn’t some outsider coming in and sticking a camera in their face; it was more somebody from the town. There was a mutual trust there. ... I could show the reality of what they were doing without taking advantage of them.”
As Tobin predicted, this kind of trusting relationship was essential to capturing the gritty reality of lobstering. On top of having to think through problems that arise on any fishing job now and then, the lobstermen had to deal with a camera crew following them around, asking for an explanation of each misstep and miscalculation. Despite all the times this process could have become irksome, the lobstermen remained patient, much to Martin’s gratitude.
While the filming process posed some challenges to the lobstermen, it posed significant challenges to the camera crew as well. Lobstering is a physically demanding profession, and trying to catch this lifestyle on camera was no different.
“These guys get up at four in the morning, sometimes earlier. They’re out on the water by 4:30; they fish for 12 hours. I wanted a real day out on the water,” Martin explains. “I was doing very little comparatively but I was still exhausted.”
Such a lifestyle would put even the most grueling study sessions into perspective. In addition to being a physically tiring job, lobstering can be dangerous, as the men frequently work on small boats and in more isolated conditions than other types of fishermen. Add to these challenges the steadily decreasing price of lobster and the increasing number of lobstermen, each aggravated by a need to pay the bills, and it becomes easy to understand why this traditional and once-lucrative lifestyle has become so difficult to pursue.
“In 21st-century America, there is a challenge toward traditional lifestyles,” Tobin explains. “Most of them are being eaten up by corporate entities. … The lobster industry is an exception in the sense that it is still very individual and family-run.”
Perhaps one of the reasons the industry has endured is because most of the lobstermen admit that they couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else. In the documentary, one character shakes his head in stunned disbelief at the idea of working in an office behind a desk every day. Lobstering is their passion, their way of life.
So far, the Deer Isle-Stonington community is thrilled about the documentary, and Martin cites the community’s approval as one of his main goals.
“I wanted it to be authentic, something that fishermen could watch and say, ‘Yeah, this is what it’s like,’” he says.
Despite having finished and produced the documentary after an astounding amount of work — 25 hours of raw footage, months of editing, three years of interviews — Martin says there’s still more to do.
“That’s when the real work begins,” he says. “Getting eyes on your movie. That’s important to us, getting as many people to see this project as possible.”
Right now, Martin is busy promoting his documentary and attending screenings for the film. But as for future plans, Martin says that he will definitely continue to pursue filmmaking.
“At this point in my life, after I finished up most of ‘Life by Lobster,’ I felt like I really wanted to branch out and do something different,” he says. “I’ve tried to do other genres and I’m enjoying all of it but I’ve become a lot more open to doing another documentary now. You just learn so much. ... I feel like I’d be cheating myself to not get into another documentary.”
Considering the grace of his first documentary endeavor, Martin would be cheating his audience if he didn’t as well.
— Contact Catherine Cai