Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn. He’s the founder and programmer of filmwax, a film series based in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. He’s checking in this month with dispatches from BAMcinemaFEST 2011.
Heather Courtney returned to her hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the idea of filming a documentary about rural small-town America. What she ended up with was the story of four local young men being deployed for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Courtney found herself drawn to the story of the loved ones left behind and the effects on the community in general. Therein is the story behind her new documentary Where Soldiers Come From.
Was Where Soldiers Come From always going to be about the effects on a family and community, as opposed to just following soldiers?
Heather Courtney: That was always my main motivation for making the film, to be the portrait of a town and how the community is affected. When I first started filming I didn’t even know the boys were going to be deployed. It was much more a coming-of-age film. They were trying to figure out how to grow up, what to do with their lives, and how to go to college. One of the ways they were going to do that was to join the National Guard, for the money. Then they got deployed. I had already filmed for two years.
Did you find that it became increasingly more challenging to keep true to that original idea as the story was expanding? You had the period in Afghanistan and a national election going on at home.
That’s true, but I still don’t consider it a war film. Again, it’s a coming-of-age film and how the men changed over the course of those four years. Afghanistan is a big part of it and we get to see how the people are going on with their lives at home while their sons are away. And the last segment of the film, when the men return, it’s also about the family’s struggle dealing with the men trying to adjust to a normal life.
What struck me was how outspoken the soldiers’ family members and girlfriends were about both their feelings but also about their skepticism with the government. Perhaps I assumed they would be more conservative all around coming from small-town Michigan.
Well, I think it varied from person to person. The boys’ political awareness probably came out of their firsthand experience being in the war. As far as the parents, I think with Cole’s mom, for instance — I think she never voted conservatively. But I didn’t really know what her politics were at all. She expressed in the film that her vote mattered now for the fact that her son was going to war. She felt maybe that her vote might get him home sooner or prevent him from having to return. She was definitely more motivated to vote because of the personal stakes.
I just thought they seemed very frank with their criticism of government. Not that they were that politically self-identifying but that they were so emotionally open and expressive. Cole’s Mom, Mary, is a great example of this. Did she lose all sense of self-consciousness around the camera pretty quickly?
She was hardly ever aware of the camera from what I could see. I couldn’t tell if she was ever nervous. She always seemed very much herself.
How did you find these guys?
My motivation had been to make a film about rural America, so I went back to my hometown. I was reading the local paper and had read something about the local National Guard unit. I ended up going to one of their monthly training sessions and that’s where I met Dominic. I started talking to him and he filled me in and introduced me to his friends, explaining they all joined together. I just thought it would be interesting to film these guys who were trying to figure out what to do with their lives next. They were 19 at the time. When I finished filming they were 23.
Are they going to be doing personal appearances?
I’m here at the LA Film Festival right now and they are expected show up in the next few hours. They’ll be at BAM on Tuesday. They’ll also be at Rooftop Films on July 2. Dominic and Cole will be at that screening.
Where Soldiers Come From screens at BAMcinemaFEST on Tuesday, June 21, 2011, at 6:50 PM, then at Rooftop Films on Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 8:00 PM. Courtney and several of the film’s subjects will be present at both events. Lastly, the film airs on POV on Thursday, November 10, 2011.