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?