"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." - Heather Courtney
The result is a documentary that seeks out and records a few local teens from their high school graduation to war in Afghanistan and back.
If only because WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM was filmed by a local person and if only because it reveals recognizable people and familiar areas around the Copper Country, this Sunday's U.P. premiere at the Calumet Theatre would draw large local audiences. But it's much more than just a "home movie." Ms. Courtney, who directed, produced and helped film it, is a fine professional cinematographer and she proves it with this sometimes sentimental, sometimes grim 91-minute documentary.
Ms. Courtney, who works for National Public Radio, focuses on Copper Country boys who faced an uncertain future after high school, joined the National Guard for its windfall of $20,000 and an open door to a higher education - all for one training service a weekend a month in return. They signed up and were unexpectedly deployed to an explosives unit in Afghanistan, where they learned the real price for their decision.
How does a person make an original movie about war? Fictional dramas that go all the way back to the 1930 "All Quiet on the Western Front" have been given the glossy Hollywood treatment, and, interestingly, with the exception of those focusing on WWII, they were mostly anti-war films. Hundreds of documentaries, shown on TV and in classrooms, also have been made -some objectively as history, others from a pro- or anti- bias as propaganda.
Ms. Courtney's film skirts the propaganda issue, approaching this war in Afghanistan tangentially, zeroing in on what happens to Copper Country youths before, during and after their stint.
She moves into their hometown lives as they just begin to experience life - each in his own way. They are fun-loving kids who do what other kids do: find a girlfriend, hang out around local sights, spray paint on walls, drink Bosch beer with friends and family, talk and think about the future with guarded optimism.
They sign-up in the Guard for their weekend training sessions, but are soon to be sent overseas.
With a dispassionate, objective eye, Ms. Courtney's camera slips back and forth between the boys becoming soldiers (in full gear on duty, talking soldier talk, facing danger with forced bravado) and their families and friends at home as they hear enough to raise fears and worries.
Of course, when the fellows recognize the seriousness of their unexpected wartime situations, they, too, worry.
Then, after nine months in the field, they return home, feted at a great reception as they are feted, as returning heroes, in the local high school (the word "embarrassed" used more than once among them) - no longer kids on a lark, but now confused, matured and even disillusioned. "You're never going to be the same once you've been over there," one father comments, and a girlfriend, noticing a decided change, sadly agrees.
The fellows themselves also worry about TBI (traumatic brain injury) - known to be a widespread malady among returning vets. In Afghanistan, one had complained bitterly, "I'm not a killer. I'm a lover," and, later, "I never hated anyone until I joined the military."
Ms. Courtney filmed with a discerning but dispassionate approach, concentrating on the youths during four vital years in their growth in attitudes and language. She poses the questions: where do soldiers come from and what will become of them once they return?
This powerful and absorbing movie will be shown at 7:30 p.m. at the Calumet Theatre with Ms. Courtney present on Sunday only, but the film will also will be shown nightly through the 30th for additional viewings.
Rotten tomatoes averages: "Drive," B+; "Final Destination 5," C-; Shark Night," F