The Way They Got By
By Laura Serino
When Gita Pullapilly, producer of the documentary The Way We Get By, went to a screening in Orono in April, she expected to just show the film and get some audience feedback. But the screening also resulted in something else: a free wedding for her and her fiancé, Aron Gaudet.
“A wedding planner was in the audience, and she asked us when we were going to tie the knot. Since all our savings went into the film, I told her it wouldn’t be anytime soon,” Pullapilly says. “A few weeks later she called to tell us that she got in touch with a bunch of friends and vendors and they wanted to give us a wedding—on the house. This film has brought nothing but blessings.”
The film’s story revolves around troop greeters—a group of senior citizens who gather daily at Bangor International Airport (BGR) to thank U.S. soldiers departing for and returning from Iraq. “This became a universal story about growing old and finding purpose in life,” she says. “We didn’t just stay at the airport, we followed each subject home, which in the end made this a film about the human experience.”
Pullapilly and Gaudet first met while working for competing TV news stations in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After discussing a shared to desire to make a film, they figured a documentary would be a perfect fit—almost like an extra-long new story. “I think our background actually put us at a disadvantage,” says Pullapilly. “We couldn’t use our production skills and we had to force ourselves to think more creatively. We weren’t reporting a piece, we were telling a story that turned out to be much bigger than we had expected.”
Pullapilly and Gaudet discovered the Maine greeters while visiting Gaudet’s family in Bangor for the holidays in December 2004. Gaudet’s mother, Joan, took the couple to BGR at 2 a.m. to greet a flight of troops. That morning they were also introduced to fellow greeters Jerry Mundy and Bill Knight. Knight had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that same day The steadfast dedication of Joan Gaudet, Mundy, and Knight touched them, and they knew they had a story to tell.
Four years after they met the greeters, Ben Fowlie contacted the filmmaking couple. “We hadn’t tested it or done private screenings—even our subjects hadn’t seen it,” says Pullapilly. Billed as a rough cut during the 2008 Camden International Film Festival, 300 people attended, including the film’s subjects to see it for the first time.
“When the lights went down, my heart was in my stomach,” says Pullapilly. “Aron and I were shocked at the reaction, we were shocked about how moved people were. We knew at that moment that we had put out a special story and that it would resonate with audiences.”
The film won Special Jury Prize at South by Southwest Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Phoenix, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Newport film festivals. The doc will also air on PBS on Veterans Day.
“The greeters have shared a part of their lives with us, and they’re as satisfied with the film as we are,” she says. “One of the greeters, Jerry Mundy, likes to say, ‘Now we’re living it up!’”