Welcome to Lee, Maine: A Small Town’s Huge Loss
Written by Dave Walker | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
Welcome to Lee, Maine, population 850, a rural village nestled in the woods of central Maine. It’s the smallest town in the USA to lose two sons to the Iraq War. In 2007, both Sgt Joel House and Sgt Blair Emery were killed by roadside bombs during the U.S. military’s troop buildup in Iraq. The two boys grew up a mile apart. Perna Content, a production and marketing company based in Portland, Maine, has announced the release of a new film directed by Bill Perna, Welcome to Lee Maine, that explores how the reverberations of this years-long war have struck even the smallest corners of the country.
Across the nation, small towns like Lee have sent away more than their share of recruits and experienced disproportionate losses. A total of five of Lee’s youth have signed up to fight in the Iraq War. Some enlisted to get out of Lee, Maine, and see the world. Others enlisted because they believed that they too, ought to do their part. Blair Emery, whose older sisters both served in the Army, asked himself, “What kind of man would I be if I let my sisters go and I don’t?”
The film’s focus however is not on Joel and Blair’s reasons for enlisting, but on the aftermath of their deaths. Lee, Maine is a very patriotic town. When watching the film, one can’t help but notice the prevalence of military memorabilia — t-shirts, flags and other various tokens. The residents and the families are proud of their sons’ service and that pride makes up the very fabric of the town. Yet, this sacrifice is not an easy one to swallow, especially in light of a war that many feel has dragged on too long. Blair had once spoken to his father about his disillusionment with the war. “We don’t know who we’re fightin’,” he said. How do you make sense of a loss in the context of a way that may feel, to some, arbitrary and pointless?
Fortunately, Perna’s film does not dwell on the politics of the war. Instead, he is interested in how the families of the deceased, have dealt with the tragedy. Whether they stand behind the war or not, they must face the same task: the long journey through grief. In the wake of the tragedy, the townspeople struggled to come to terms with Joel and Blair’s absence and the cause they gave their lives for. Lee is a close-knit community rooted in Christian values, and many of the residents featured in the film speak of Joel and Blair as if they were their own sons. The sight of more of its children heading off to fight is troubling for a community that feels it has already given too much. A trip through town offers plenty of reminders of the boys who are gone. Meanwhile, on the news it can be hard to find much good in the ongoing ravages of the war.
It’s hard to justify their loss, but in order to find some peace of mind, the town must begin to reconcile the past and the future. For Joel’s father, Paul House, inspiration and comfort can be found in the quiet beauty of his hometown. The film showcases images of the town’s natural environs — deep snow drifts, groves of forest and expansive views of lakes and waterfalls — accompanied by a musical score that is equally captivating and spacious. The filmmakers encourage us to share in House’s appreciation of the scenery, which has been his wellspring for recovering. For him, nature is a source of peace: “As you’re walking these old roads. Everything is just quiet and you don’t hear anything and you stop and just listen…One of my favorite things is hearing water running in the distance, like a brook or a stream. It just brings a peace and quiet.”
Slowly, in the ashes of remembrance the seeds are sewn for a new dream. With the hope that he could share his vision with others, Paul House conceived of a retreat, a woodland sanctuary where grieving Gold Star families and veterans from across the nation can come and begin to heal. This storyline provides the film’s lasting impression. Working closely with the families of the deceased and the members of the community, the filmmakers have shared a moving portrait of rural America that is at once an unflinching take on the casualties of war and a redemptive tale of inspiration and hope.
Welcome to Lee, Maine will premiere at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME on February 29th as part of its annual fundraiser. It will continue to screen at a number of theaters in Maine during April and May.
For more information about screenings or to get involved, please visit www.welcometoleemainefilm.com.