PORTLAND — The filmmakers who won critical acclaim for their documentary focusing on the troop greeters at Bangor International Airport are again using Maine as a backdrop.
The first feature film by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly is set among the blue potato farms in Van Buren in northern Maine. “Beneath the Harvest Sky” focuses on two best friends coming of age, the challenges of life in rural America and the illegal drug trade between Maine and Canada.
It debuts Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival.
“We’re showing what life is like up there. There are amazing farmers who’re doing great things. They’re passionate about their communities. But there’s a serious problem of prescription drug dealing,” said Gaudet, who with Pullapilly relocated from New York City to Maine to research, write the screenplay and make the film.
The husband-and-wife team previously collaborated on “The Way We Get By,” a documentary that followed the trials and tribulations of a devoted group, including Gaudet’s elderly mother, that made it a mission to thank troops whose aircraft make refueling stops at all hours in Bangor while returning from war or heading overseas.
That documentary about how the determined senior citizens found meaning in the simple act of showing kindness to military personnel ended up being a story of aging in America.
Following the success of the documentary, which aired nationally on PBS, others encouraged the couple to build on their success with another one. Instead, they had something else in mind.
Aron Gaudet saw a Facebook page featuring potato fields on which blue potatoes were being grown, and he was drawn to the mix of wilderness, rolling hills, small towns and farms in northern Maine. He and Pullapilly began working on a script inspired by town of Van Buren near the Canadian border.
The film, featuring Aiden Gillen from “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire,” focuses on two teenage friends against the backdrop of the annual fall potato harvest. One of them is saving money to buy a car to leave to look for opportunity elsewhere. The other is drawn into the drug trade with his father and uncle.
The movie features familiar scenes in northern Maine, including border crossings, sprawling farms, and heavy machinery used to harvest potatoes.
During the harvest, teenagers spend long hours on dusty harvesting equipment watching potatoes moving by on conveyors and tossing out rocks that are inadvertently picked up. “Those rocks and potatoes were a good metaphor for the kids who were living there. Are you going to get separated out and shipped out, or not?” he said.
The film is fiction but is based on edgy reality about drugs.
“As filmmakers and story tellers, we’re not working for the Maine Tourism Board. Our job is to tell real stories that address social issues and about amazing people, and hopefully brings up issues that can be talked bout. What makes great stories are people who overcome obstacles,” Pullapilly said.
The couple, who traveled Friday to Toronto, hopes industry insiders who view the film Sunday night will select it for national distribution. Already, they’ve lined up sponsorship from the owner of potato chip company Terra Blue, which buys part of its potatoes from the LaJoie family that offered inspiration to the filmmakers.