To Find The Real Aroostook, Look Beyond The Movies

by Jen Lynds

As someone who was born and raised in Aroostook County and deeply loves its beauty and natural outdoor playground, I get excited whenever the region is promoted on a national scale.

It was thrilling when Martha Stewart visited an area farm to film a segment for her television show a number of years ago and stopped into a store to buy a bunch of Houlton Farms Dairy butter, and when Russell Currier of Stockholm made it to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and when Darrell McCrum of Mars Hill was one of only five potato farmers selected to be part of a national television commercial campaign created by Lay’s Potato Chips. I was even happy when Stephen King, in his book Hearts in Atlantis, made the parents of the main character’s roommate “Aroostook County Democrats.”

So I was very excited to see Beneath The Harvest Sky, shot by filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, who also created the documentary about the Maine Troop Greeters, “The Way We Get By.” The newest film was shot in Aroostook County, much of it in Van Buren, in 2012. It had its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Aiden Gillian from “Game of Thrones,  Callen McAuliffe of The Great Gatsby, and Emory Cohen of Tv’s Smash.  It is a coming of age story and a drama, not a documentary like “The Way We Get By,” and in the trailer and in all of the interviews that the filmmakers gave leading up to the film’s debut, they never once portrayed it as anything but a film about two teenage boys who aimed to get out of a small town they felt trapped in and escape into a new life they hoped to create for themselves.

So I was really surprised to see in Katherine Olmstead’s May 22 column that some Van Buren residents felt “betrayed” by the filmmakers, because they thought the film was going to be a documentary about the Aroostook County potato harvest. They also objected to the foul language in the film and all of the illegal activities portrayed in it, including drug trafficking and the “moose safari” scene.

Some felt that it discredited the whole area.

To me, the criticism of the filmmakers was a bit harsh. They did numerous media interviews and had actors in the community, so how could people think it was a documentary? And I believe that most people can sort fiction from reality. I’m sure that visitors to Fargo, North Dakota, do not associate everyone there with the people in the black comedy crime film “Fargo,” which was rife with kidnapping, murder and an frightening wood chipper.

I have watched the movie three times, and personally, I liked it. I thought the soundtrack was excellent. The only thing I didn’t like was the “moose safari” scene. I have lived here my entire life except for four years I spent working in Bangor, and I had never heard of such a thing. For those who haven’t seen the film, the main character takes three others on a “moose safari,” which involved the four of them standing on the back of a truck at night as it sped down a dirt road chasing a moose, who tried to get away from them as they shined a spotlight on the animal. On that scene, my mind kind of works from this angle: “Would you like someone to do that to you?”

Several of the residents who spoke to Katherine for her column were upset about the drug trafficking portrayed in the film, but sadly, I feel the filmmakers got that right. I think most people realize how terrible our drug problem is here, and the film showed the main characters breaking into homes to steal drugs, obtaining scripts from others to fill and then to sell, and inventing ways to sneak drugs across the border. This happens every day in this region, and we are struggling to find ways to stop it. Is it better to own up to the problem, or to be angry at filmmakers who shined a spotlight on it at a national level?

The movie has a number of reviews on Amazon.com, and a rating of 6.7 stars out of 10 on that site. Several viewers did agree that they could have used far fewer “f-bombs.” One viewer weighed in on the controversy surrounding the movie.

“Everyone in Van Buren is a bit hurt about this movie,” she wrote. “But I’m sorry, this movie is real life for many people- not just in Van Buren, but across the country in small towns.”

Just below that review, another caught my eye.

“I live in Maine and see issues and problems like this in my communities: poverty, addiction and no real way out,” he wrote.

No real way out. Reading other reviews of Beneath The Harvest Sky in national publications, at times it was troubling to see that the writers seemed to believe that the main characters, Casper and Dom, were “trapped” in a small town. The only way out for one was to be a drug dealer, the only way out for another was to work the potato harvest until he could buy a car and escape to Boston.

The filmmakers briefly touched on this in the beginning of the film, but it later faded into the background.

No one is ever trapped anywhere. Education always offers a way out. Graduating high school and learning a trade or earning a college degree will free you up to take you anywhere you want to go.

In small towns in Aroostook County, it is common to hear youth complain that there is “nothing to do here,” and boredom was depicted by the filmmakers in the movie quite often.

Some of that criticism is accurate. Most towns here don’t have a gigantic fitness center with an indoor pool or a rock wall or skating rinks or teen centers. Many don’t even have a movie theater. But we do have vast outdoor spaces for walking, hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, baseball, basketball, rollerblading, etc, and many of those activities you can do for free or for a nominal fee. How often should we feed into the notion that small towns offer nothing before we start encouraging our youth to create their own fun?

In truth, there is likely no way you could ever accurately portray Aroostook County in a film or documentary, because every little town and resident is unique.

But if there is apprehension about the way people might perceive us, perhaps its time to change it.