Friday, October 9, 2009
“The Way We Get By” (opening October 9 at Reading’s Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) is a documentary that focuses on a trio of seniors who volunteer as troop greeters.
Troop greeters are what a volunteer group has designated as their title. They are mostly seniors who go any time of the day or night to their area airports to welcome home troops from overseas. They provide handshakes, hugs, thanks, and cell phones to call home wherever that might be. What begins as a portrait of these troop greeters develops into an appreciation for volunteerism and an exploration of what it’s like to grow old in America. The troop greeters may make returning soldiers feel appreciated in an controversial war, but the activity gives purpose to these seniors, one of whom has no one to care or look after him.
Filmmaker Aron Gaudet, who comes from a TV news background, keeps his film simple and straightforward as he chronicles the lives of three seniors, one of whom is his own mother. The film avoids politics and focuses on the positive benefits for all of volunteerism.
Gaudet was in New York at the Paley Center where his film was opening the Paley Documentary Film Festival. The film, and its greeters, have been touring the country with the film, even going to Washington, D.C. to meet with the Vice President. He spoke with me by phone about his first documentary. (Note that Reading is extending special military discounts for the run of the film.)
Where did this documentary come from? Was it from personal experiences or something you had read about?
Aron Gaudet: Well it became personal because my mom is a troop greeter and one of the three subjects that we follow in the film. So it stemmed from her always being home when I called to check in on her to me not being able to get her on the phone because she was never home even in the middle of the night she was never home so it really stemmed from that when I went home for Christmas in 2004 and really wanting to see what had changed her life so much and what had given her so much purpose and she had suddenly become so active. I really wanted to see what it was that she was doing. I went with her to s flight and saw what her and the other troop greeters were doing. And kind of got hooked like they did.
Why did you feel this was an important subject to get out there in a documentary?
Aron Gaudet: Well at first when I saw what they were doing it seemed like a genuine simple act of kindness that they were doing at this airport by being there to support troops. I thought is was really interesting that it had nothing to do with the politics of the war, it was about supporting troops and that’s what got me interested. But as I started following the three of them who are all senior citizens it became much more about showing what it’s like to just age in America, and all the struggles you go through. It seemed like this was a group of people that didn’t always have a voice and they were cast aside when they retired but they had all come together to give themselves purpose and I thought that was important to show that it doesn’t matter the age you can still contribute and do something really powerful.
In documenting this did you feel that the benefit was mutual – that both the troops and the seniors were benefiting?
Aron Gaudet: Yeah absolutely. You could really see they connected with this handshake. And you could really see that on each side of the handshake they were both getting something very important out of it, which is the troops come back to the U.S. and the first time they are back on U.S. soil and I don’t think they’re quite sure what to expect coming home and to have those people there these complete strangers that are there to welcome them home I think really puts them at ease that it’s okay and they’re home and maybe things are going to be all right and then on the greeter’s side of it it just really does give them such a sense of purpose and to see what it does to their lives and how it helps them get through their day that was something that was really important to show how there is a mutual appreciation and they each get something from it.
Creating a documentary that deals with war in any respect, it can be difficult to avoid the politics. So how was it to try and navigate through the politics?
Aron Gaudet: Well I thin that one thing that was good, and the first thing about being a troop greeter in Maine is leave the politics outside the airport that was something that they all came up with and they were just there to support the troops. They weren’t going to be political with them or talk politics so in a way we gave that same rule to the film and we thought that would be good because to make it really political about a group that is not political I don’t think would have worked so I think in that sense it was easy. I watch a lot of documentaries and I watch a lot of the political war documentaries and I felt I would always walk out of the theater angry at someone, I would feel like somebody did something wrong or why have certain things not played out the way they have. I didn’t want to feel that way walking out of my own documentary so I wanted it to feel different. I wanted it to be something where you walk out and you are inspired to do something good instead.
What did you feel was the greatest challenge in putting this documentary together?
Aron Gaudet: I just think being this close to it. Because I was following my mom and then two other subjects but we really got into their lives as well and let them into our lives and I think some filmmakers approach something and they try to remain very objective and distant, and we said they are opening their lives to us, we’ll open our lives to them and then through editing to really remain objective and to tell their stories with honesty that was something that we really took seriously because even though they meant the world to us we knew we had to be very honest and true and genuine in telling their story because they are very open and genuine people and we couldn’t sugar coat it and even though they meant something like that to us we had to be kind of cold when telling their story and make sure that we told it properly.
Since one of these subjects was your mom did you ever discover something that surprised you about her?
Aron Gaudet: Yeah definitely. I think it was just kind of a shock to follow her and look at her objectively over three years. We followed them for a little over three years and you know I’m the youngest of eight so we have a really big family and she has a huge support network so it was kind of a shock to me when I realized just how much time she spent by herself because everybody has jobs and has family and someone might stop and check in on her everyday but she would still spend 23 or 22 hours a day by herself. And that was something that I really didn’t think about. And one of the other subjects had nobody, no support system and was alone all the time. But I kind of figured my mom was different cause she had a huge family but following her, even with a big family if you are not living with them or in constant contact with them they are still isolated if they retire or have just lost their spouse, that was kind of an eye opener to me.
Now that it’s done what impact do you hope it might have?
Aron Gaudet: I think that everybody can’t greet troops, there’s not troops coming into airports all over the country, there are definitely airports where troops go through but to me it is such an example of, it doesn’t have to be troops, it can be something else, it can be an example of community involvement and how volunteering in your community can really make a difference. On the surface what they are doing, the commitment is really incredible, they go there day and night everyday for ten or twelve hours for over six years, which I think is incredible but the stuff that they are doing there, they are shaking hands, they give hugs, they give cell phones, it’s something that’s fairly simple but there’s this ripple effect where they have really affected lives all over the country. So I think it’s just a really great example of how you can find something and do something that is a simple gesture and it can still have a big effect.
Thank you for your time.
Aron Gaudet: We love getting the word out about the movie. It’s tough as independent filmmakers to compete against the studio films so it’s always good to be able to tell people a little about the movie and try to get them intrigued enough to take a look at the film.