“The Long Coast” shows the Maine’s shoreline from many angles. Photo courtesy of Ian Cheney

I love Maine. 

Only living here since 1987 makes me “from away,” and I’ve come to accept that. But the Perkinses come from here, and Maine was the place where we escaped every summer through my childhood. My parents have retired to the (now winterized) ancient house on a cliff overlooking the waters off of Phippsburg, where, as a child, I goggled at the date inscribed on the side of the house. It started with an “18,” and I’d stare at it as if it were from another planet. 

So, my native cred shaky as it is, I grew up staring out on this rocky, cold, unimaginably beautiful shoreline. And I love it. Yet, writing about Maine movies as I do, sometimes I do imagine I’ve just seen enough documentaries about the picturesquely stark Maine coast. (Or as fellow from-away Mainer John Hodgman describes them in his book “Vacationland,” Maine’s “painful beaches.”)

“The Long Coast,” from Maine filmmaker Ian Cheney and available to stream through PMA Films, is the sort of movie that disabuses one of that notion. A meditative mix of interviews, striking but unobtrusive cinematography, and, yes, Maine’s uniquely picturesque, majestic coastal beauty, “The Long Coast” is a portrait in collage and montage. The 86-minute film’s five segments (and a somber, chilly COVID-era epilogue) have plenty to say – about Maine’s working ocean culture, global warming, overfishing, conservation, and innovation. But “The Long Coast’s” impact comes when you step back. The individual pieces are uniformly fascinating, but the overall picture Cheney presents of Maine’s vast and varied (and ever-changing) fishing ecosystem is a down-home masterpiece. 

The interviews are conducted in wide shots, each subject centered alone in the frame. A clammer explains the lonely benefits of his trade, while we see the mucky work up close. A young lobsterwoman tells how she worked her way through high school, hauling traps before captaining a ship of her own. Oyster farmers – both tank- and ocean-based – extol the benefits their industriousness brings to the ecosystem, while a 40-year lobsterman explains why he saw it was time to switch to farming oysters and kelp. Two women (a kelp farmer and a retired former lobsterwoman) relate how their very dreams have been infiltrated by their chosen professions. 

Elvers, clams, lobsters, oysters, salmon, alewives, even lowly periwinkles (which one man cites as key to his decades of self-employment). All variously bountiful, all subject to effects of overfishing, climate change, industrial farming, conservation and plain old bad luck. And all as interconnected, in ways Cheney draws delicately throughout his film, as are the lives of the ocean’s scuttling, squirming, swarming creatures. 

Clammers are among the many ocean-dependent workers featured in “The Long Coast.” Photo courtesy of Ian Cheney

It sounds facile to say that humans and the things they fish, dig, and farm are all interdependent. But “The Long Coast” presents that fact as so intrinsic to the individual lives spotlighted within that the message emerges like something so basic as to be inarguable. More straightforward documentaries might make the case for adaptation and conservation with alarmist (if inescapable) lectures, but Cheney weaves a net of simple fact. A woman notes plainly that the Maine sea urchins her husband once pulled up with lucrative ease are gone, as are the once bountiful cod a lobsterman notes once made up a fleet’s main bait fish. The young lobsterwoman has branched out into oyster farming because overfishing and resultant restrictions necessitated it. “It’s another way of staying on the ocean,” the woman states, as she hauls a clattering wire frame full of her oysters from the cold sea. 

Cheney (as seen in his similarly observant documentary about a single Maine field, “Thirteen Ways”) always comes back to the source. The ocean – seen here from above, below and aboard various choppy vessels – is the reality of working life for thousands of Mainers. And the ocean is always changing. Changing along with the tides isn’t a “from-away” idea, it’s intrinsic to the life of those who depend on them. The clammer, who’s seen local mussel stocks all but disappear and his chosen river’s clams becoming sparse, talks about attending a seminar on scallop aquaculture, noting simply, “We need technology because we don’t know how much longer Mother Nature’s gonna keep providing stuff for us.” 

So Mainers are providing solutions. Oyster tanks utilize other fishing industry waste to feed their crops while not crowding out fishing grounds or creating pollutants of their own. (Although, as one farmer notes, there is still some consumer snobbery around tank oysters.) A longtime bait merchant explains how the lack of cod has meant a boon to pork producers, whose castoff pig hides are becoming a lobster trap staple. (There was some diner unpleasantness before they figured out to shave the hides.) An eel fisher (and beauty salon owner) lays out her plans to cut out the foreign middlemen in the elver harvest. (We ship the comically adorable baby glass eels to China, which then sells the full-grown eels back to Maine.) 

The thing about “The Long Coast” is that global and environmental concerns – so often simplified into shrill political talking points – are as vital to the livelihoods of Maine’s ocean workers as are their nets, boats, and that cool short-handled hoe clammers use. Cheney’s subjects know that, and so, obviously, does he. “The Long Coast” takes the long view, and it’s a gorgeously photographed, exquisitely edited and uniquely Maine view indeed. 

“The Long Coast” can be rented through PMA Films’ virtual video store at portlandmuseum.org/films. The 72-hour ticket for this 86-minute film is a very-worth-it $10, with a portion of each rental going right to PMA Films. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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