The Way We Get By is one of the hidden gems of this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly say that theater owners have been skeptical about whether a documentary featuring elderly people and American troops will draw general audiences. But reaction to the 2009 SXSW Special Jury Award winner, which follows three senior citizens who greet American troops as they come back from the war in Iraq, is proving that its story of life and mortality is a compelling one.
The Way We Get By is the story of Bill, Joan and Jerry, three elderly troop greeters who spend much of their time at the Bangor International Airport shaking hands with troops as they come in and out on their way to and from Iraq. Watching it, you wouldn’t suspect that Joan’s son made the film. But underneath it all the doc is really a family affair. In 2004 Aron Gaudet and his fiancée, then girlfriend, Gita Pullapilly were looking for a documentary project to get them out of their TV news jobs. Pullapilly was a reporter, Gaudet a producer, and they both wanted a change.
Usually Gaudet’s mother was at home when he called to chat, but suddenly he started to notice she was always out. Soon he found out what she was doing; she was going to the Bangor International Airport in Maine to meet troops as they passed through this main hub, letting them know they were appreciated.
Gaudet and Pullapilly dove into the project head first, starting work on their first feature doc without first contemplating funding, which Gaudet, who has been attending TDF while in town for Hot Docs, now admits was a somewhat backward approach. However, Pullapilly thinks that the lack of funds they had going in only helped. It forced them to be more creative when it came to their approach to marketing and distribution. The two went to colleges and universities throughout the States, soliciting help from business and marketing classes who then put together (in some cases) 100-page documents explaining how to succeed in different states and markets. Some schools even made calls to theaters for them.
The state of Maine in particular has been very supportive of this doc. When the film premiered there on April 9, 2009 the governor gave the film an award, a red carpet ceremony was held for the troop greeters and the film screened for a packed house of 1,400 viewers. The project also received sponsorship from the Bangor Saving Bank which purchased the 35mm negative of the film for Gaudet and Pullapilly, as long as they agreed to screen the film around Maine. As well, the bank bought 15,000 copies of the DVD and donated 10,000 copies back to Gaudet and Pullapilly.
While the film doesn’t take a political stance, Joan does say on screen that she doesn’t think anyone should go into another country and tell them what to do. During the film’s first screening at Hot Docs, that statement received a round of applause. In the beginning theater owners and other naysayers told Pullapilly and Gaudet The Way We Get By was ‘too American’ to succeed in other territories, but the warm reception at Hot Docs, and a recent deal with Film Transit for international distribution, have made the duo realize that the doubters were wrong. ‘The less support you get throughout, it’s better when you succeed in the end,’ says Gaudet.
Visit our screening room to watch the trailer for The Way We Get By.