Armande Pelletier of Van Buren was excited when she learned the movie that had been filmed in her hometown was opening at the theater in Caribou. She was eager to see the beauty of her community evoked by the title “Beneath the Harvest Sky” spread across the screen.
So she and her husband hopped in the car for the 22-mile drive to Caribou, unaware that Aroostook County’s potato harvest was merely the backdrop for a dark story about foul-mouthed people involved in illegal activities, from trafficking drugs to chasing moose with a pick-up.
“I was heartbroken,” said Armande a month later. “I came out feeling like an injustice had been done to our town … not just the town — it discredits the whole area. People opened their hearts and their businesses to the filmmakers. I feel betrayed.”
Viewers like the Pelletiers expected to see a documentary about the harvest created by filmmakers Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet, known for their sensitive portrayal of the Bangor troop-greeters in a film titled, “The Way We Get By.” Instead, they were confronted with images of Van Buren described in a YouTube blurb about the film as “a dead-end industrial town” and in a New York Times review as “a dingy, fading agricultural town on the Canadian border” where “for teenagers unlucky enough to grow up there, the desire to leave is the driving force.”
Armande was baffled that the crew could visit the LaJoie farm, known for its blue potatoes, and not say anything good about it. “These are good people. They do good things,” she said, describing community family days hosted by the LaJoies.
Others defended the film.
“It’s a fiction film,” said Jay LaJoie, who provided the farm setting and equipment and a wealth of information for the filmmakers. “There is a lot of good, but there is also bad,” he said. “The film showed a sad story. It wasn’t meant to show how I live my life. It’s a movie.”
LaJoie met Pullapilly and Gaudet when they visited Aroostook County in 2010, searching for a setting for their next movie. He gave them a tour of his farm and they stayed in touch.
He also mentioned he had a cousin interested in filmmaking, establishing a connection for Nick LaJoie, now a senior at Van Buren District Secondary School. Nick helped the crew find extras for the film and became a full-time production assistant, a big step toward his dream of making his own film some day.
“I sure hope people take it as fiction,” Nick said, noting the profanity was too strong and the portrayal of teacher-student interactions would not happen at his school. “It’s definitely not how we are.”
Nick favored the farming scenes and thought the actors did a good job with the St. John Valley accent. He has seen the film four times and tried to imagine how he would react had he not been involved.
“Even I had to adjust,” he said, recalling his initial viewing. “They did do their research. Those issues are here. They built a fictional story.”
Nick reported mixed reactions to the film among his friends at school. Those involved as extras found the acting experience helped them accept it. Others were sensitive to the way the town was represented.
“It was awesome that a movie was made in Van Buren,” said senior Chantral Deveau, who was one of the extras. “The storyline was well thought out, but the drugs and swearing were blown up, expanded beyond reality.”
The school’s associate principal, Ben Lothrop, called the film a great opportunity for the students involved, and acknowledged that the issues it illustrated “sometimes occur, not only in Van Buren, but throughout small towns in northern Maine or anywhere. But it’s a movie, and events are sensationalized and dramatized.”
Reactions in the broader community resembled those at the school. Harvey Beaulieu expected to see more of the town’s beautiful scenery and was disappointed.
“It did not reflect what Van Buren is all about,” he said. “Kids don’t conduct themselves like that in a classroom and teachers don’t talk like that. I thought it would be a documentary about potatoes. I’m glad I didn’t pay more than $5 to see it.”
Lydia Martin, who co-chairs the town’s planning committee for the upcoming World Acadian Congress, echoed Beaulieu’s comments, quoting a friend who said without the F-word it would be a silent movie. “I am so, so upset,” she said. “It does not represent our town.”
Her fellow committee member, Gary Levesque, placed himself among the defenders of the film, calling it a well done movie.
“I can understand the controversy,” he said, noting that an imposing shot of the Van Buren water tower made the set personal for townspeople. “But it reflects what happens in small towns around the country where there is a lack of jobs. Seniors sell pills because they need money. It’s reality.
“The movie was not meant to put Van Buren in a bad light. People outside [Maine] would not know it was an actual town.”
Jay LaJoie concurred. “It’s a reality that happens nowadays. It could have been set in many rural towns, especially border towns.
“Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem. A lot of people look the other way. The film is an eye-opener.”
Still, Armande Pelletier wonders how people from away will perceive Van Buren.
“The damage is done,” she concluded. “Once feathers are set to the wind you can’t catch them.”
The BDN hosted the Bangor premiere of “Beneath the Harvest Sky.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.