Title: Where Soldiers Come From
Director: Heather Courtney
Centering on a group of young friends and deployed reservists from the shores of Lake Superior, on the northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Where Soldiers Come From” delivers unto viewers a slice of somewhat meandering but nonetheless quite affecting blue-collar heartbreak. After all, the subjects, none older than 22 at the time, joined the National Guard together on something of a lark, drawn in — even in wartime — chiefly by a devil-may-care sense of fraternity and the benefits of a $15,000 signing bonus and college tuition assistance. This kind of delicately anthropological real-life coming-of-age tale tracks the end of their Stateside training, their tour of duty in Afghanistan, and the disillusionment and troubles that follow upon their return home.
Although there are a couple other subjects, director Heather Courtney focuses mainly on Matt Beaudoin, Dominic Fredianelli and Cole Smith, pals from the small town of Hancock. Fredianelli is an avid “urban artist” (read: handy with a spray paint can) who eventually wants to get into graphic design and illustration. Beaudoin, after several traumatic concussions, admits somewhat sadly but matter-of-factly that he’s come to hate all Afghans, regardless of their ethnicity, tribal affiliation or feelings toward the American military. The wry Smith, meanwhile — whose mother works two jobs back home to supplement his father’s disability income — tries to hold his comrades together, but sometimes feels guilty about leaning on them to join the National Guard in the first place.
Some of the footage is downright wince-inducing, and not for the reasons one might initially suspect in a war documentary. The crash-course training the National Guard reservists receive prior to their deployment — meant to be a kind of thumbnail historical/political sketch of the country to which they are headed for a year — is laughably broad (“Women are typically less educated”), and even more so because the gentleman running it doesn’t know how to pronounce Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s name, or even if he’s still in power, actually. Realizing the basic tools and information that so many of these guys lack put America’s efforts there in stark relief.
Since they’re reservists, the unit in which Smith and his friends serve is tabbed to spend their days sweeping for roadside mines and other IEDs — you know, so the “regular” soldiers can travel more safely, on secured routes. This, of course, is one of the more dangerous tasks in Afghanistan — and it virtually ensures that the young men will face repeated RPG attacks and other explosions, which they do. This footage is sometimes harrowing, but is nicely counterbalanced by plenty of informal material from the group’s fortified base, as well as sit-down interview chats, both individually and in a group format.
“Where Soldiers Come From,” which picked up a jury award for editing at this year’s SXSW Festival, bears a great deal in common with “How To Fold a Flag,” another recent nonfiction look at the difficulties of societal re-entry and adjustment facing soldiers. Courtney is obviously quite close to her subjects and their families (at one point, an interviewee uses her first name in response to an off-camera question), and this helps give her movie an unforced sense of intimacy a lot of other lives-of-soldiers films lack. If there’s a problem, it’s that Courtney is sometimes too close, and doesn’t press or probe for answers to the questions popping up in an audience’s mind.
That said, there’s also a natural level of engagement here precisely because “Where Soldiers Come From” is so understated. Courtney benefits from her subjects’ trust, and maturation; Fredianelli in particular we see morph before our eyes. Footage of a lot of the guys getting buzzed by swilling Nyquil, and talking darkly of PTSD and other unseen injuries, doesn’t exactly fill one with hope regarding their domestic futures, and Fredianelli’s girlfriend talks about his anger and moodiness. Yet a viewer also gets a glimpse of boys becoming men, understanding parts of that challenge, and working to accept it. These stories are, alas, the new back stories of many individual American triumphs and tragedies yet to be written.
Written by: Brent Simon