By Jeff Farr
“Right now, I think all of us just feel stuck,” says the voice of a young soon-to-be soldier from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the beginning of Heather Courtney’s finely wrought war documentary, “Where Soldiers Come From.”
Question is, Will a trip to Afghanistan with the U.S. military make this young man and his friends feel any less stuck?
Much as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington did in last year’s impressive documentary “Restrepo,” Courtney’s film examines how the War in Afghanistan, which hits the ten-year mark in October, has been altering many Americans’ lives–in the worst ways. Courtney’s film, gestating four years in production, is the more devastating of the two documentaries, which can be considered to be companion pieces.
One of the young men’s mothers directly addresses the director: “Did you ever see that movie ‘Deer Hunter’?” It is a painful and appropriate question. This film is eerily reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s 1978 drama: close friends from small-town America go off to war in a foreign country and never really come back, at least not as anything resembling the innocents they once were.
Early on in “Where Soldiers Come From,” Courtney’s main subjects, best friends Dom and Cole, seem cute kids more than men. By the end of the movie, they surely are not boys anymore, but they have also not had the chance to become healthy men. They have been twisted by their experiences in Afghanistan. The return as victims of TBI (traumatic brain injury) and wind up as stuck as they ever were—nowhere to go, clueless as what to do next with their lives.
War, Courtney argues, strands her subjects in a dangerously unstable psychic space between boyhood and adulthood.
Dom and Cole’s buddy Bodi gets the saddest deal. It is ironic because more than anyone, he at first loves being in Afghanistan. “When you find IEDs, it’s real fun,” he enthuses. He also calls his new job “better than any drug I’ve done in my entire life!”
Bodi eventually receives so many concussions from IED explosions that he is no longer allowed to go on search missions. He is destined to become the most scarred of the friends, the bitterest of the bitter, a ghost back in Michigan.
The whole tragic trajectory starts with economic factors: all the men are from poor families and join the National Guard simply to make some money or to be able to say they finally have work and are “doing something with their lives.”
Dom, a talented graffiti artist, convinces many of his boyhood pals to sign up with him and later wrestles with tremendous guilt over this.
Courtney carefully expands the scope from the soldiers to their families, including many sharp interviews with the men’s parents and girlfriends. It becomes clear how many lives are deeply impacted when just one soldier goes overseas into danger.
Once the men arrive at Base Salerno in eastern Afghanistan for their nine-month tour, Courtney has some moving sequences of family Skype calls, where her team was able to shoot simultaneously at both locations.
The final section of the film, covering the return to civilian life, is actually the most harrowing. The heavy drinking we have seen throughout the film becomes notably heavier. The soldiers and their families attend “reintegration workshops” that do little to help them move forward. Suddenly, all of these young men are taking a wide variety of new prescriptions just to be able to function.
Also of interest in this film is how Courtney subtly weaves in a political context throughout. We see the election of Barack Obama through the eyes of the men and their families. “Now we’ll see what he’ll do for the boys,” Cole’s mother says hopefully but not so confidently.
Obama remains a steady presence, always appearing on TV screens in the background. When the president announces his 2009 decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the returned soldiers’ non-reaction is heartbreaking. Now they know.
“Where Soldiers Come From” is beautifully shot by Courtney and Justin Hennard, and includes some short but elegant black-and-white sequences.
The editing, by Courtney and Kyle Henry, rightfully received the Jury Award for Editing at SXSW earlier this year. In one masterful sequence, Courtney cuts from an “IED awareness” session in basic training, which has just featured a PowerPoint shot of a soldier’s mangled face, to Dom’s art class, with a nude male model standing in the middle of the room. It is a clear contrast of one man’s body that will never be whole again and another man’s body untouched by violence.
Courtney in this way underlines what this film is all about: the before and after of a war that is taking place right now.
An International Film Circuit release.
Directed and produced by Heather Courtney.
Cinematography, Heather Courtney and Justin Hennard.
Editing, Heather Courtney and Kyle Henry.
Original music, This Will Destroy You, Alex Chavez, and Chad Stocker.
Running time: 91 minutes.