In November 2011, Where Soldiers Come From director Heather Courtney provided the latest news on the friends-turned-soldiers featured in the film and the film’s reception at high-profile screenings.
POV: Where are the soldiers Dominic “Dom” Fredianelli, Cole Smith and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin today?
Heather Courtney: Dom is still in art school at Finlandia University, with his mentor in the film, Yueh Mei Cheng, and has about a year or two left. Cole is working in Hancock, Michigan. Bodi is living with his girlfriend and a 180-pound English mastiff in Hancock and is hoping to go back to school next year.
POV: How old are they now?
Heather Courtney: Dom and Cole are both 24 years old. Bodi is 23.
POV: You’re from the same area as your subjects, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Has the film screened there? How have local audiences responded to it?
Heather Courtney: We had the hometown Upper Peninsula premiere at the end of September  in the historic Calumet Theatre. Opening night was a sold-out crowd of 700 people. I have to say that, while I’ve screened the film all over the country at festivals and theatrically, in cities like Austin, Texas, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the screening I was most nervous about was the hometown premiere. Would people think it was an accurate portrayal of their community? Would Dom, Cole and Bodi’s fellow soldiers think their experience in Afghanistan was depicted correctly? Would the guys and their families feel comfortable sharing this personal story with practically everyone they knew?
As the lights dimmed and the movie started to play, my fears subsided — people were cheering, laughing out loud, crying quietly and nodding as they related to the guys and their families. When the credits rolled, a standing ovation started and continued through the end of the credits and the beginning of the Q-and-A, which included the guys, their families, their friends and their former and current girlfriends! Where Soldiers Come From played for five more nights at the Calumet Theatre (which is normally for performing arts, not film), and in all about 2,500 people came to see the film that week — the town of Hancock, where the guys are from, has a total population of fewer than 5,000 people!
Since that week, I’ve heard from the guys and others in the film that there continues to be a buzz about the film — people come up to them on the streets and talk to them about it, posters are hanging up at various establishments and people come to the restaurant where Mary [Smith, Cole Smith’s mother] works and ask to sit in her section, including people who saw the film in Chicago and Los Angeles!
POV: The film has played at numerous festivals, as you mentioned, as well as a recent, high-profile screening on Capitol Hill, which is a rare honor. How have you seen the film affecting viewers’ thoughts on the war in Afghanistan or traumatic brain injury (TBI)?
Heather Courtney: At many of these screenings, Bodi, Dom and Cole have been with me for post-screening Q-and-As. What I have been most struck by in all of the Q-and-A sessions is seeing how much people feel for Dom, Cole and Bodi and are affected by their story. These are people with backgrounds and experiences very different from theirs. At a screening at SILVERDOCS, a 19-year-old Afghan boy, who had come to the United States as a kid, asked the guys what they thought about the future of Afghanistan. All three said they thought Afghanistan was a beautiful country, and that they really hoped that it would be a country without war some day. The young man talked to them after the Q-and-A and took photos with them, they became friends on Facebook, and that night his profile picture on his Facebook page was of him, Dom, Cole and Bodi with the caption “Me and the Directors and Stars of the film WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM.”
At another screening in Indianapolis, a middle-aged woman in tears asked Cole’s mom, Mary, also in tears, how she could help, because all of her children were lucky enough to be able to go to college, and she didn’t have to go through what Mary went through and she wanted to help in some way. At the SXSW Film Festival, someone asked Bodi if he would talk to other veterans about his experience as a way to help other veterans, and Bodi said he hoped some day he could, but for now he is focused on taking things day by day as he deals with his TBI and PTSD.
Most recently, I have started showing the film in cooperation with veterans groups around the country. At a screening arranged by Vets for Vets at the University of Wisconsin, a group of 20 or so vets watched the film and there was a discussion afterward. The emotion in the room was palpable, as several of the veterans in the room were reliving what they went through and related their experiences and struggles. Many felt the film could be helpful in opening up a space for vets to share their experiences and struggles with each other, and I hope the film can be used in that way.
I do hope the film can help bring more awareness to traumatic brain injury (TBI), which up until recently has been an ignored war wound. News stories from organizations like ProPublica and NPR have brought some attention to the issue as well. The Defense Department, Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are all starting to address what is now being called the “signature wound” of the war in Afghanistan. I hope the film will add to the discussion about TBI, how better to diagnose it in the field and how better to treat it when veterans come home. Related to that, I think my film also reminds audiences of the need for better care for veterans, particularly National Guard and other reserve units. When active duty military return home from war, they return to active military bases and have access to resources at the bases. When National Guard soldiers return home, they are expected just to return to their normal civilian existence without any transition. They are usually not near military bases, and VA hospitals and clinics can be hours away if they are in rural areas. I am hopeful that through screenings such as the one on Capitol Hill, with policymakers and leaders in attendance, the film can contribute to the dialogue around the need for changes in these areas.
POV: What do you hope members of the public television audience will take away from the film?
Heather Courtney: I hope they will feel connected to the people in the film, even if their experiences are very different. And I hope this connection changes perceptions about soldiers. Many people who don’t know soldiers personally have a perception of them as gung-ho fighters with a one-dimensional view of the war, but really they are just normal guys, with many differing viewpoints and opinions.
What I think Where Soldiers Come From does is allow the audience or viewer really to get to know these guys as normal people, not soldiers, because the film spends so much time getting to know them before they ever become soldiers, and also spends a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends. It’s a full portrait of them and their community over a four-year period, which humanizes them in a way that is not often seen in war-related films.
I hope that the film has accomplished one of my original goals: to tell a more universal and complex story about rural America, to counter some of the stereotypes that exist out there about small towns.
Join a live chat with Heather Courtney and childhood friends-turned-soldiers Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin on Friday, November 11, 2011, at 2 PM Eastern, 11 AM Pacific.