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. Frustrated with how small-town America was often portrayed in the mainstream media, I wanted to tell a story about my rural hometown that countered those stereotypes.
With no clear idea of what that story would be, I began to peruse the local newspaper (The Daily Mining Gazette) and read about the local National Guard unit. I hadn’t even realized that a National Guard unit existed up there, so I went to one of the unit’s monthly trainings to check it out, and that’s where I met Dominic Fredianelli. As he stood with his buddies, Dom told me he had joined the National Guard after graduating from high school. Pointing to the group of teenaged boys around him, he said, “These are my friends and we all joined, more or less, together.”
It was then that I knew I might have a story. In the first weeks I was filming, a narrative began to emerge about small-town childhood friends who were making the decisions and taking the steps all of us do when we’re trying to change our situations and figure out how to make the leap to adulthood. Focusing on this crucial moment in kids’ lives and opening a window to the place and people that formed them have always been more important to me than telling a story about war.
I spent nearly two years filming Dom and his fellow National Guard members as regular 19- and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I also spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends. My goal was to get to know them as people rather than soldiers. By getting to know these young men and their families and town before they leave, we see how they all change over the following four years.
When the boys did go to war, I went with them. I also returned to Michigan several times during their deployment to show the effect of their absence on those left behind. And I was with them when they returned from war to film their adjustment during their first year back in civilian life. Eventually, my film became a story about the war at home, how it affects families, loved ones and communities here, and how the war continues at home when these young men return from a year in combat. But at its heart, it is still a film about growing up.
In any film in which going to war is a major plot point, it would be easy to make a political statement. But in Where Soldiers Come From, and my other film projects as well, I am more interested in focusing on the emotional and human aspects of the story, as well as recognizing their complexities. Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they don’t know anyone personally who has served in them as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.
I know that a documentary is never completely the truth. It is always told through the filter of the director and the production/editing process. But what I strive for is to capture moments that are true, and to tell the story sincerely. By doing this, I hope to encourage audiences to question previously held beliefs, or change their perspectives or discover a truth about themselves. Ultimately, I hope viewers connect with and learn from the people on the screen, even if these people and their lives are very different from audience members and their experiences.
As for my own journey back home, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know the place I come from all over again, and to appreciate its beauty, complexity and people in a way I never did as a child growing up there. Mostly, I am thankful to have met and gotten to know all of the people in my film. Their openness, courage and love for each other continue to inspire me.
— Heather Courtney, Director/Producer