To make Where Soldiers Come From, director Heather Courtney embedded for four years with Dominic, Cole and Bodi, three young National Guardsmen from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, before, during, and after their deployment in Afghanistan, while also getting to know their families, girlfriends, and communities, in a homefront chronicle spanning two presidential administrations and a global economic recession. The unassumingly made film, a generous, surprising and compelling chronicle that more than lives up to its title, opens at the Village East on September 9th; we recently emailed with Courtney.
How'd you come to find this group of "yoopers" and focus on their experience going to war?
About five years ago, I went back to my hometown to tell a story about rural America, so "where soldiers come from" is actually where I come from too. I had always felt that small-town America wasn't portrayed very authentically in mainstream television and film. Once there, I was perusing the local paper for story ideas, and saw an article about the local National Guard unit. I went to one of their monthly trainings, and that's where I met Dominic, who was 19 at the time. He told me that he had joined the National Guard after graduating from high school, to help pay for college, and then he turned to a group of other teenaged boys and said, "and these are all my friends and we all joined together." I thought that could be interesting, to follow a group of friends, at that age where they're trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Focusing on this crucial moment in a kid's life, and opening a window to the place and people they're from, have always been more important to me than telling a story about war. So in that way, it started as a coming-of-age film, and I still think it's a coming-of-age film, although it became a coming-of-age film in the context of war once they found out they were going to be deployed.
Can you speak at all to the availability of funding and support for a project this ambitious?
It is difficult to get the kind of financial support you need for a project that involves filming for four years, and not just dropping in for a week and shooting a few events and a few interviews. You really have to become a part of their lives, and a part of the fabric of the community. For me, that meant moving to northern Michigan for months at a time, and hanging out for just as much time as I was shooting. That meant being able to devote all my time to the project, and not have to work a full-time job. I was lucky enough to get ITVS Open Call funding about a year into my project. They took a risk by funding me fairly early on in what turned into a four-year project. There are only a handful of Open Call grants given twice a year, out of thousands of applications. There are other grants and support out there as well, but most involve piecing it together; there are not that many grants that provide the kind of funding that is necessary for a long-term cinéma-vérité project. It's having the gift of time, and that means not having to earn a full-time income somewhere else. I was lucky, and I realize that it's not going to be that easy to have that kind of support and that gift of time again.
The ways in which the soldiers and their families evolve as political thinkers is fascinating to watch. Obviously you want to encourage them to express themselves to you and your camera; how do you do that without imposing your own viewpoint on the conversation?
I never discussed with them my politics or my opinions about politics or the war. I really wanted the film to be in their voice, not mine. It can be difficult, but you just have to be aware of the kinds of questions you ask—don't ask leading questions. And don't give your opinions, just listen and observe. The scenes in the film where their own political thoughts come out are not in interviews, for the most part, they're in vérité scenes where they're talking to each other. Because I was just a one-woman band, just me and my camera, those kinds of scenes and conversations were easy to film pretty unobtrusively.
Do you think that being filmed, and the knowledge that they were being filmed, gave your subjects some sense of perspective about their experiences that they might have otherwise struggled to gain?
I think that's really more a question for them. I can say that in several of the Q&As that we have had after festival screenings, that the guys talk about how seeing the film has given them a new perspective. When someone after a screening asked Dominic what he thought of the film, he talked about how he uses the film as a tool to recognize how he has changed. He said that when he first came back from Afghanistan he didn't want to admit that the war had changed him, and that's why in the film you see how he has trouble relating to people, trouble dealing with anger and irritability. He says when he saw the film for the first time, it made him realize this, and it helped him understand how and why he had changed.
There's a great moment where a couple of soldiers joke about being in some foofy documentary that's gonna play at film festivals—how have your subjects felt about the attention of audiences that are often quite removed from their own cultural background?
I don't know that they look at the audiences who see the film as quite removed from their own cultural background. Every screening we have had that the guys have been at has been filled with people who are very interested in their story and wondering how they are now. At the BAMCinemaFest in Brooklyn in June, there were a few middle-aged moms in the audience, dressed in African dresses. I don't know what their specific background was, but I know it was quite different from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But that didn't matter at all. One of the women raised her hand and said to Dom, Cole, and Bodi, "I just want to give you a hug. I have sons close to your age." They were reaching out to them as moms, and in that way I feel like the film helps people see a little of themselves in the people on the screen, even if their own experience is quite different.
How did you decide when the film ended? It's a tribute to the time your film spends with the soldiers that we feel invested in their lives when they come back from Afghanistan—have you given much thought to fulfilling a desire for where-are-they-now updates?
I knew that I had to spend a significant amount of time filming the guys after they got back from Afghanistan. I continued to film them at home after the war for as long as my funding and various deadlines would allow, so for about another year. Watching someone change and grow from age 19 to age 23 in a 90-minute movie is something that many people have commented on. I remember one day when I was editing and it was close to our final deadline for picture-lock, I was watching the first interviews I did with them more than four years ago, and then watching the final interviews I did, and I was suddenly very struck by how much they had changed from those first interviews to the final ones four years later. It was something that really affected me.
In terms of where-are-they-now updates, I would never do that within the film itself; I feel like a film ends where it ends, and tacking on "where are they now" updates takes us out of the story in the film.In Q&As at film festivals, the guys always update everyone about what they're doing now. And we are hoping to add a blog to the website that the guys can write regular updates to, so stay tuned!
Image Courtesy Quincy Hill Films