There is nothing ordinary about Rake: Stories from the Clam Digger. In a fine new documentary, Angela White explores the core of the tough profession of clam digging by interviewing the men who work the Sandy Hook Bay near the town of Highlands, NJ. We learn about their emotions as they do the tough work of raking the bottom of the bay for clams. White doesn’t tell us their story, she shows it to us.
As we watch, we begin to understand the strength required to push the heavy rake out, pull it in, and empty the clams into bins stacked in rows in the small boats. They do this repeatedly during all the hours they work. The boats are small, with low sides to allow the lowering and hauling of the rakes. “It’s like raking gravel,” one says. It’s a physically demanding, tough job and as men age, they cut back on the hours. A clam digger in his boat usually works four or more hours a day on the water in all kinds of challenging weather. After hauling up to 40 bushels in a day, they must unload and treat the clams after returning to their port.
What is the why of it? That’s what Angela White wanted to know. It comes down, she says in a beautifully written introduction, to freedom and empowerment. No boss, no office, no rules, no duties. A clammer looks at the weather and depending on how he feels that day, sets out on his boat to work by his own rules. Conditions – of weather and of himself – will determine when he comes back. And when he comes back, the unloading of the many bins lies ahead. Danger from weather, ice, and other boats, especially ferries, is the price they pay for being free.
Giving us that deep sense of personal freedom is Angela White’s gift to her audiences. She tells us what they do and how they feel about it by having these men describe their working lives as they do the heavy, repetitious work without stopping. In between the several interviews, we hear White’s inventive musical score as it runs along with a creative message of letters that dance across the screen to tell us what’s next. The entire film is a first rank effort.
We learn that clam diggers believe their profession is endangered because young people are no longer willing to work that hard – especially at a physically demanding job that has high expenses and no benefits. If the clamming profession is dying, Angela White has shown us why men have worked at it for so long with pride and pleasure. They are on the water where they make all their own decisions. Their lives are their own. This fine documentary shows us quite literally what is in their hearts.
Movie Critic: Joan Ellis
Title: RAKE: STORIES FROM THE CLAM DIGGER
Word count: 471
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