ROCKPORT – John Friedrich drove down here from Amesbury on Saturday afternoon for the sole purpose of attending the premiere of the fishing documentary "Dead in the Water" at the Rockport High School auditorium.

Friedrich had read a story in the Newburyport Daily News about the documentary that chronicles the demise and unceasing challenges faced by the once-mighty Gloucester groundfish fleet and thought it was something he should see, to gauge for himself the true extent of the problem.

"I thought the film was very well done," he said of the 15th documentary from veteran filmmaker and Rockport native David Wittkower. "But it was also very disturbing, just emotionally disturbing. It's such a tragedy. The problem is so much more huge than I imagined."

If Wittkower and producers Angela Sanfilippo and John Bell were looking for a template for the response they sought from Saturday's packed house, that was it.

From the day he first envisioned the film in 2013, the mantra that has driven Wittkower has been to spread the story of Gloucester's fishing crisis beyond the rocky shores of Cape Ann, to bring to the rest of America the tale of a disappearing American legacy and one of its first industries.

The showing on Saturday drew almost 300, most of them from Cape Ann and most with at least a nominal sense of the regulatory, environmental and market pressures faced by America's oldest commercial fishing fleet.

Handcuffs on industry

But even some locals, when presented with the long-form narrative of the causes and consequences of the groundfish crisis, were stunned at the scope of the difficulties faced by the fishermen who try to carve a living from the sea.

Val Somers of Gloucester said he had never realized the actual extent of the federal regulatory restrictions under which the industry has to operate.

"I didn't think about the extent of the handcuffs the government has placed on the fishermen that keep them from functioning in a normal manner, in a way they can run their businesses," Somers said.

Bob Koeller of Gloucester-based Seatronics, the company that provides electronic sales and service to many of the Gloucester-based boats, said even he didn't fully comprehend what the fishermen face on a daily basis.

"I know it's been hard, but I really didn't realize just how difficult it is for them," Koeller said. "In that way, it was very enlightening. This film deserves a wide distribution so people all around the country can see what the Gloucester fishermen are up against and what they have to do just to survive."

The film features a slew of faces and stakeholders familiar to anyone who spends time along the Gloucester waterfront or has spent any time at the endless regulatory meetings that ultimately forge fishery management policies.

There were interviews with state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Northeast Seafood Coalition executives Jackie Odell and Vito Giacalone. There was Sanfilippo and Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. Cape Pond Ice owner and Ward 1 City Councilor Scott Memhard gave the perspective of those among the waterfront infrastructure that also have suffered through the crisis.

But the the most compelling cinematic testimony came from the fishermen themselves as they told their personal stories of hardship and endurance, of the pure energy and will it requires to continue fishing in the current environment.

Gloucester groundfishermen Paul Theriault, Al Cottone, Sam Novello and Russell Sherman, joined by Kevin Norton from the South Shore, sketched their own gripping personal accounts of the dangers and demands that have grown as the crisis has deepened.

"Paul Theriault – wow – he was the star," Koeller said. "He didn't pull any punches."

A thumbs-up

Because of disagreements over the language of legal releases submitted to each other by the filmmaker and federal regulators, the documentary did not include any of the extended interview Wittkower did with NOAA Regional Administrator John K. Bullard.

"I thought the film was very well done, though I was disappointed in the stand that NOAA took (on the releases)," said longtime Gloucester lobsterman Mark Ring, who also serves as the chairman of the city's Fisheries Commission. "Disappointed, but not surprised."

Koeller had high praise for Wittkower's direction, cinematography and story-telling.

"The editing was excellent, the dialogue was well done and everybody was really well-spoken," Koeller said. "I don't think Ken Burns could have done a better job."

Local benefactor Linzee Coolidge, whose foundation helped in the final stages of financing for the film, also was impressed with the finished product.

"I thought it was wonderful and very much to the point in a way that hasn't happened yet," Coolidge said. "It was really terrific."

A clearly relieved Sanfilippo said she was thrilled with the turnout and was approached afterward by at least two people who said they'd like to help set up additional Gloucester screenings of the film.

One additional screening already is set. According to Bell, the Cape Ann Museum will host a screening of "Dead in the Water" in its auditorium on Feb. 10, at a time to be determined.

Wittkower, who has entered the film in about 30 film festivals and is pursuing a wider distribution forum with networks and content providers such as Amazon, Netflix and HBO, also hopes to assemble a tour among New England fishing communities to screen the film.

But in its premiere on Saturday – at the epicenter of the crisis – the universal reaction clearly was a big thumb's up.  

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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