From a snowy small town in Northern Michigan to the mountains of Afghanistan and back, WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM follows the four-year journey of childhood friends, forever changed by a faraway war.
A film about growing up, WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM is an intimate look at the young men who fight our wars and the families and town they come from. Returning to her hometown, Director Heather Courtney gains extraordinary access following these young men as they grow and change from reckless teenagers, to soldiers looking for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, to 23-year-old veterans dealing with the silent war wounds of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD.
Enticed by a $20,000 signing bonus and the college tuition support, best friends Dominic and Cole join the National Guard after graduating from their rural high school. Soon their group of friends joins them, and eventually the young men are sent to Afghanistan, where they spend their days sweeping for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). By the time their deployment ends, they are no longer the carefree group of friends they were before enlisting; repeated bombs blowing up around their convoys have led to TBI symptoms, and they have all become increasingly disillusioned about their mission.
The challenges really begin to surface when they return to their families and communities in Michigan. WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM looks beyond the guns and policies of an ongoing war to tell a human story about family, friendship, and community and how they all change when young people go off to fight.
WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM won the 2012 Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award, and is a co-production of Quincy Hill Films and ITVS, in association with American Documentary | POV. The film had its national broadcast premiere in Fall 2011 on PBS’s award-winning documentary series POV, and has been chosen as an encore broadcast in September 2012.
A little over four years ago, I returned to the shores of Lake Superior, on the northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to explore the idea of making a film about the place I come from. Frustrated with how small-town America was often portrayed in the mainstream media, I wanted to tell a story about my rural hometown that countered those stereotypes. With no clear idea of what my story would be, I began to peruse the local newspaper (the Daily Mining Gazette) and read about the local National Guard unit. I didn’t even realize that a National Guard unit existed up there, so I went to one of their monthly trainings to check it out, and that’s where I met Dominic. As he stood with his buddies, Dom told me he joined the National Guard after graduating from high school. Pointing to the group of teenaged boys around him, he said, “These are my friends and we all joined more or less together.”
It was then that I knew I might have a story. In the first weeks I was filming, a narrative began to emerge about small-town childhood friends who were making those decisions and taking those steps all of us make when we’re trying to change our situation and figure out how to make the leap to adulthood. 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.
I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19- and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I also spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends. My goal was to get to know them as people rather than soldiers, and by knowing them and their families and town before they leave, we see how they all change over these four years.
When the boys did go to war, I went with them. I also returned to Michigan several times during their deployment to show the effect of their absence on those left behind. And I was with them when they returned from war, filming their first year adjusting back to civilian life. Eventually, my film becomes a story about the war at home, how it affects families, loved ones and communities here, and how the war continues at home when these young men return from a year in combat. But at its heart it is still a film about growing up.
In any film where going to war is a major plot point, it would be easy to make a political statement. But in WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM, and my other film projects as well, I am more interested in focusing on the emotional and human aspects of the story, as well as recognizing their complexities. Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from the Iraq/Afghanistan wars because they don’t know anyone personally who has gone there as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them, and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.
I know that a documentary is never completely the truth. It is always told through the filter of the director and the production/editing process. But what I strive for is to capture moments that are true, and to tell the story sincerely. In doing this, I hope that audiences will question a previously held belief, or change their perspective, or discover a truth about themselves. Ultimately I hope viewers connect with and learn from the people on the screen, even if these people are very different from themselves or their own experience.
As for my own journey back home, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know the place I come from all over again, and to appreciate its beauty, complexity, and people in a way I never did as a child growing up there. Mostly, I am thankful to have met and gotten to know all of the people in my film. Their openness, courage, and love for each other continue to inspire me.
– Heather Courtney, March 2011