When Darby Duffin and Adam Jones set out to make their first documentary in 2013, they had no choice but to go big. It’s what the story deserved.
Over the next six years, their journey took them cross-country and overseas. They accrued nearly 400 hours of footage and earned the trust of tight-knit communities up and down the New England coast, compiling nearly six-dozen interviews with men and women who bear their souls to the camera — detailing how they’ve put their lives on the line to feed their friends and family.
For fishermen in the United States, this is the reality of the wild fishery collapse — where only five species make up over 85 percent of the American seafood diet, and 91 percent of the country’s inventory is imported. That is six billion pounds of fish — a staggering number made more offensive by the fact that some of that seafood is caught in the U.S., shipped to Asia for processing and then imported back, just to save a buck.
The cost is high for inexpensive fish in the global seafood economy, explained Duffin and Jones, whose debut film effort, “Fish & Men” — the recipient of The Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Environmental Award at this year’s virtual Hamptons Doc Fest — explores forces threatening fishing communities and health.
“We wanted that revelatory, pull the curtain back, a little bit of shock value to get people to see what the truth was, how the system really works,” Duffin said. “But we didn’t just want to leave it with people feeling helpless and shocked and disgusted. That was the hard work that went into why it took us six years to make the film — and finding our way down that path of what were we gonna present as a viable solution. And there were no silver bullets.”
The focus of the film emerged as Gloucester, Massachusetts, the iconic American fishing port which, at one time, was the largest of its kind in the world. Today, it is home to less than 10 active, family-operated boats.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Gloucester. Darby first heard about the crisis from a friend in New Hampshire whose family of local fishermen was suffocating under heavy regulations.
“Connecting that with seeing, as a consumer, the lack of local seafood, that kind of perplexed me,” Duffin said. “I knew there was some connection there, between the death throes of the industry and the lack of local seafood, but at the same time, there was no shortage of seafood — it’s just not local. That piqued my interest.”
Darby pitched the idea to Jones and in just an hour, over lunch, he was on board.
“I don’t fish and I don’t really cook, but I eat seafood and there had never been a film like this that explains it all for a guy like me,” Jones said. “But I think Darby would agree that neither of us knew what we were getting into when we began this journey.”
Funding half of the project themselves, the co-directors centered the film on Gloucester fishermen Russell Sherman and Richard Burgess, who have 88 years of experience between them. But there was more to the story and, over the next three years, the film branched out — with Duffin and Jones shooting about 65 percent of it, even though they don’t consider themselves cinematographers.
“We knew we would start with what was going on in Gloucester and the characters there. That was, we’ve always said, the beating heart of the film,” Jones said. “But that story arc is headed in an unfortunate direction. It might not be much of an arc at all. It might just be a flat line. Then we just started realizing what a wormhole we were in.”
New revelations landed the team on the docks and put them out to sea. They watched governments at work, went behind the scenes of renowned kitchens run by celebrity chefs — including Eric Ripert, Michael Cimarusti, Niki Nakayama and Dan Barber — and compared the U.S. seafood economy to that of Norway and Iceland by traveling there. And it all came back to one uncomfortable truth that challenged even the most open-minded of audiences.
“The elephant in the room is consumer demand,” Jones said. “The people sitting in the seats watching the film are the ones determining which fish fishermen can target because those are the only ones they can sell, because those are the only ones that people eat. When we started looking deeper into that, that’s what led Darby to Montauk and he met Sean Barrett, the guy who started the Dock to Dish program, which we really lean into toward the third act of the film. It’s something that’s a beacon of hope.”
The program, the first restaurant-supported fishery in North America, is a model in the film, showcasing chefs as gatekeepers to palates by cooking what is provided to them by Dock to Dish.
“When you think about it that way and what the ocean can provide, why would you be choosing what you want when you should be choosing what the ocean gives you?” Jones posed. “To flip the whole supply and demand model makes sense for the fish and the fishermen.”
To date, “Fish & Men” has screened at over 30 festivals, taking home the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature at the New Hampshire Film Festival, where it made its world premiere last year.
“There’s such a fearlessness that you get from making a doc,” Jones said. “You have to be able to really think on your feet and create order from chaos. As a filmmaker, that’s something no one can take away from us now.”
“Fish & Men” opens Saturday, December 5, during the virtual Hamptons Doc Fest, which runs through Sunday, December 13. A Q&A with Darby Duffin and Adam Jones, moderated by Bonnie Brady of Montauk, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, will follow. For more information, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.