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Verona Island filmmaker screens Bucksport mill documentary

BUCKSPORT, Maine (From The Ellsworth American) -- Usually when Bucksport residents watch a movie at the Alamo Theatre, they see images of people living in faraway lands or reliving stories from the past. But on Nov. 21, many theatergoers saw something very familiar on the big screen: their neighbors and their town.

The familiar images were part of a documentary called "Papertown," which is a video portrait of the town right before the closure of the Verso paper mill. For 84 years, the mill employed hundreds of people in Bucksport. When it closed in 2014, the workers had to find new jobs or retire, and the town is still figuring out how to redefine itself.

One of the people affected by the mill closure was the filmmaker himself, Sam Russell. Several of the Verona Island native's friends and family members worked at the mill over the years. The 1998 Bucksport High School graduate now works as a cinematographer in Brooklyn, N.Y., but he was in the area in October 2014, when the mill closure was announced.

"I had a camera with me," said Russell, who has helped make documentaries for PBS and its documentary series "Frontline." "So I was like, 'OK, the mill has been central to this area for so long, I should try to capture a little piece of that moment of the town and the workforce in transition.'"

Russell finished the documentary earlier this year, and it premiered at the Camden Film Festival. The 30-minute, black-and-white film takes place between the announcement of the mill closing and the very last shift to work there. He interviews several mill workers whose lives have revolved around the mill for generations.

"A lot of older guys ... walked out of high school and have been at the mill since," said Mary Raymond, whose stepdad, cousins, uncles, friends and husband worked at the mill.

"People say, 'Oh you're a mill worker, you have all kinds of money,'" said her husband, Geoff, who said he was the third generation of his family to work at the mill. "But it's just like anything else, you have bills and house payments and kids."

Lifelong Bucksport resident and barber Frank Dunbar gave mill workers haircuts for decades. He told a story about his father, who worked at the mill and got a concussion, broke his shoulder, two vertebrae and parts of his leg after an accident caused by a piece of faulty equipment.

"Lawyers were trying to get my father to sue the mill, and he had every right to," Dunbar said. "But dad wouldn't do it ... he said 'they gave so many of my friends jobs, plus myself. I was so grateful, I couldn't do it.'"

Between interviews, there are long, atmospheric shots of the mill, its smokestacks and its piles of lumber. The shots establish papermaking as one of many Bucksport traditions that have carried on uninterrupted for decades. There are segments showing packed stands at Carmichael Field as Bucksport boys play football on a snow-sprinkled surface. There are scenes of Dunbar giving haircuts in his barbershop, and of workers filing in through the mill's front gates before sunrise.

The film's soundtrack includes broadcast news updates about mills closing across Maine; eerie, funeral-like organ music; and bittersweet folk-songs. The soundtrack gives the film a mournful tone as it captures the last moments of a dying industry, which has supported countless livelihoods.

"Everybody's got them smartphones with them, whether they're 18 or 50," said one mill worker, Donald "Magoo" McLaughlin, in the film. "I probably won't live to see it, but it'll probably be a day when nobody uses paper except to wipe their rear end or send a package in the mail."

Despite its melancholy tone, the film isn't without its lighter moments. One shot shows a cat sleeping on the hood of an Animal Control truck. The mill workers crack jokes with each other and play fetch with their dogs, and an interview with a union president is interrupted by cheers following a Bucksport touchdown.

"I'm glad he did it," said Roger Wood, who worked in the mill from 1964 to 1999, after the screening. "It captured history for the benefit of us still here and in the future."

"He did a good job," said Dunbar, after viewing the film. "It was very personal."

Wesley Stubbs, a veteran of No. 5 Paper Machine, said he enjoyed the film, too. He also enjoyed seeing some of the guys he used to work with at the screening.

"You miss the people you work with," he said. "It's nice to have this gathering and see people you haven't seen in awhile."

One thing the film doesn't show is how many new businesses and residents have come to Bucksport since the mill closed. Russell said that story deserves its own film.

"I was capturing a very specific moment of time," said Russell, who expressed interest in making more films about the area in the future. "I'm happy the town is recovering."

Perhaps someday there could be a new wave of businesses at the mill site providing jobs for generations to come.

"The town's pretty resilient," said Russell's father, Ron. "We can embrace a new industry."

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