Maine-born director Aron Gaudet's debut documentary feature, The Way We Get By, finally arrives in southern Maine, with a weekend of screenings at SPACE Gallery from June 19 to 21 (Gaudet and his fiancée, Gita Pullapilly — the film's producer — will be at the Friday screening). The film, a decidedly unlikely crowd-pleaser, has had a charmed year so far. It won a Special Jury Award upon its world premiere at Austin, Texas's SXSW Film Festival, and an Audience Award at the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina, becoming something of a "little documentary that could" on the festival circuit. (Just last weekend, it brought home two more awards at a festival in Newport, Rhode Island.)
These achievements are doubly impressive, not just because of the The Way We Get By's humble roots, but thanks to its totally unsexy premise: Gaudet's documentary is about a trio of senior citizens who greet troops stopping over at the Bangor International Airport on their way from (or to) Iraq and Afghanistan at the Bangor International Airport. It's not a topic audiences and distributors are eager to line up for.
Despite that, Gaudet's film is immediately disarming in its candor and humanism. All three subjects see troop greeting as a reason to get up in the morning — as the title suggests, it's the way they "get by" — but approach it from different political perspectives. Bill Knight, an 86-year-old veteran, goes to see that the hostility Americans felt toward soldiers after Vietnam is not replicated. Joan Gaudet, age 75 — the director's mother, though we don't learn this in the film — doesn't agree with war, but sees a civic duty in supporting the individual soldiers. (She is afraid to see soldiers off but gets high on welcoming them home.) Jerry Mundy, 73, another vet, is the jester of the bunch, and the most straightforward about why he feels troop greeting is important: "We support their dedication to the country, [though] we don't necessarily support the reasons they went there. ... When Mr. Bush said 'Mission: Accomplished," he didn't know what the hell he was talking about."
Outside of allowing these comments, Gaudet leaves politics out of the equation, and it makes his airport footage surprisingly powerful. We see soldiers light up and well up at the unexpected reception, make calls to their family (on complimentary cell phones provided by the greeters), scan a bulletin board listing fallen soldiers to find friends who didn't make it home, and make angels in the snow. The scenes of troop homecomings are the most invigorating in the film, all bustle and chatter and dynamic wellsprings of emotion.
Most of The Way We Get By, though, is concerned with the trials of its greeters, whom we get to know with unforced intimacy. All three live on their own, but experience varying degrees of loneliness. Joan's wealth of grandchildren (two are deployed to Iraq) keep her relatively active, but she struggles with her strength, often sleeping in a chair rather than walking to her upstairs bedroom. Jerry is upbeat in public, but his only company beyond that is his dog and best friend, Mr. Flannigan. Bill's situation is altogether heartbreaking: his home, a 50-plus-acre farm, is overrun with cats and filth (and, ironically, vacuum cleaners); collection agencies call him daily; he's been diagnosed with prostrate cancer; and he regularly mourns his dead wife, isolation, and diminished capacities.
Usually filmed in static, beautiful close-ups, interviews with the greeters reveal that they share the same concerns about patriotism and mortality that the soldiers themselves do, questioning with wrenching directness whether or not they can die knowing they've lived noble lives, and whether anyone will honor them. These are heavy moments, but Gaudet is careful to pay attention to both the challenges and redeeming joys of their late lives (there are wonderful instances of distinctly Northeastern libertarian humor throughout the film).
At its core, The Way We Get By is a film intended to raise awareness of how we care for our elderly, but Gaudet allows this message to gradually seep into the film. As he emphasizes storytelling and character development, these seniors' sojourns to the airport — through aches, falls, and cancer — begin to feel like stirring acts of heroism. This is a film that presents its agenda as humbly, and proudly, as its subjects.
Christopher Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE WAY WE GET BY | directed by Aron Gaudet | produced by Gita Pullapilly | 84 minutes | at SPACE Gallery June 19-21 | Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 3 pm; Sun 7:30 pm | June 19 screening followed by Q&A with Gaudet + Pullapilly | $7 | space538.org | 207.828.5600