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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.