POV: What made you decide to go back to your hometown and to follow this particular story?
Heather Courtney: My main motivation was to make a film about rural America, because I feel like it’s not well represented in mainstream media, film and television. I wanted to tell a story about small town America. Once I got back to my hometown, I started to look for stories. I read about the local National Guard and I didn’t even realize that a National Guard unit existed up there [the Upper Peninsula of Michigan]. I went to one of the National Guard monthly trainings and that’s when I first met Dominic, the main subject in the film. He was 19 at the time. I asked him, “When and why did you join?” He said, “I joined right after high school with all of my friends from childhood. And they’re all here right now.” They were all standing around together, and I thought there was an interesting story there, following these kids as they’re trying to, you know, figure out what the next steps in their lives might be as they go through a growing-up period. For me, it was more of a coming-of-age film.
POV: For those folks who have not seen the film — What is Hancock, Michigan like?
Courtney: It’s very isolated and very snowy and cold. The average amount of snowfall is about 200 inches a year. It’s incredibly beautiful, though. It’s on the tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Lake Superior is just a few miles away. It’s incredibly beautiful all year round. In the winter, it’s very harsh, but there’s a real beauty in the harshness. Hancock is a very close-knit community — everybody knows everybody. The population of Hancock is 5,000. It’s an old mining town and that’s why the town exists in the first place. Immigrants moved there to work in the copper mines back in the 1800s.
POV: When you first met Dom, what was your impression of him and his friends? How were you so taken with Dom to want to make a film about what was happening to him?
Courtney: Whenever you start a documentary, it’s a leap of faith. In terms of what I was trying it was definitely a leap of faith, because there wasn’t any kind of event that I was following — nothing big had happened. I thought the film could be a portrait of a place and a portrait of this town through the eyes of these kids who grew up there and who were now trying to figure out what next to do with their lives. After I started filming and I got to know Dominic and his friends better, I realized it was also a story about friendship. Additionally, Dominic is a very interesting person because he’s an artist and a soldier at the same time — or becomes a soldier when they get deployed. He uses his art to express himself. That was intriguing to me as well. I see Dom as the soul of the film and I feel like Cole is the heart of the film.
POV: Tell us a little bit about your time as an independent filmmaker, but being embedded with the soldiers in Afghanistan.
Courtney: I’d already been filming them for almost two years by the time they were deployed as active-duty soldiers. I didn’t really want to be a war reporter. I never had ambitions to do a documentary in a war zone. But, I was already committed to their story. I went and tried not to think too much about the fact that I was going to a war zone and could be killed. I didn’t think too much about it because I was concerned about trying to get the footage that I needed to get.
POV: How long were you in Afghanistan?
Courtney: I was there about five months total. I went three separate times — about two months at the beginning of their deployment, a month and a half in the middle, and a month and a half at the end.
POV: How did you manage going back and forth? How did you work with the families during this time?
Courtney: Because I had filmed so much before the guys were deployed, I already knew the families very well. It was pretty easy to come back from Afghanistan and go to Michigan. I would show them some of the footage I shot in Afghanistan, which they really loved because it was the only way they could see what their sons were doing. It was pretty easy. I think they saw me as somebody who was a messenger of what was going on in Afghanistan with their sons. As difficult as that time was for them, they were very open to sharing it with me.
POV: The film is so intimate — how did you gain their trust?
Courtney: It certainly helped that I was from the Upper Peninsula. If I had been an outsider it would be much more difficult. Being able to spend time is the key to this kind of filmmaking. I spent a lot of time with them and was careful not to push them. I needed to be patient.
POV: Talk to us a little bit about your aesthetic choices.
Courtney: When I was growing up in my town, I used to take a lot of black and white photographs of the old abandoned buildings in the wintertime. It’s a very beautiful landscape in the winter. I had the idea to do the same thing with 16-millimeter. I made a point of using the 16-millimeter in very specific scenes because I wanted to have the place be a character as well. Using the black and white in the winter and color in the fall and summer was also an aesthetic choice. The winter stands for a certain feeling. As Dominic says in the beginning, all of us feel stuck. It’s supposed to emphasize that feeling of being isolated and stuck in a harsh environment.
POV: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
Courtney: There were periods where the access was hard because the guys were going through so much, both before they were deployed, because they were all really scared about being deployed, and after. Within a few months after being back, they all were having symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. They couldn’t sleep and they were irritable. They were having a hard time relating to people and adjusting. A lot of times, they didn’t want to talk to me about it. As Dominic says in the film, “We don’t even talk about it with each other.” There were times where access was difficult.
POV: Did you go to Afghanistan with a whole crew or did you go by yourself?
Courtney: It was just me. I thought about bringing another camera person along with me, but in the end it was too expensive and I would have felt responsible for that person if something would happen to them. I would ride in the back of one of the trucks. They would go out in convoys of 10 or 12 trucks. There would be one window in the back of the convoy that I would shoot through. All three of the guys I filmed were drivers of vehicles so I got helmet cams for the dashboards. I got some helmet cams to put on the gun turrets so that we could get a better view of the outside. That’s how I was able to capture some of the bomb blasts that happened. We would drive around for 20 hours at a time looking for roadside bombs. maybe we would find a couple, maybe a truck might get hit by one, or one would go off behind the convoy. But in a space of 20 hours, not much really happened. So there’s a lot of really interesting conversations that happened. As the guys say, you’ll drive around and it’ll be completely boring until it’s not boring. Then it’s awful and intense because a bomb has gone off.
POV: What surprised you in making the film?
Courtney: The biggest surprise for me was when I watched a rough cut, from beginning to end, with all the footage I shot. I was really surprised at how much they had changed. In the early interviews, they’re fresh faced, young and innocent. By the end of the film that innocence is totally gone and you can see it in their faces and their eyes. To see it in a 90-minute span — it made me really sad the first time I noticed that.
POV: What do you think is the most important ethical concern for documentary filmmakers today?
Courtney: I think there’s a lot of ethical concerns. Every time you interview anyone or shoot anything, there’s ethical concerns. It’s a huge responsibility to take somebody’s life and take all these hours of footage and cut it down to, you know, 90 minutes. I think the way to address it is to be open and honest with your subjects all the time. You need to constantly remind yourself that this is someone’s life that you’re taking and making a movie out of. You want to stay as true to the story as you can, and as authentic to who they are as people.
POV: On many occasions you say, this is not a film just about soldiers and the war. What do you want a POV audience to come away with after having seen the film?
Courtney: I think what my film can do for POV audiences is show how a lot of these soldiers are regular teenage boys. They’re not necessarily kids who’ve always dreamed about being in the army, or kids who wanted to be a Marine. These are kids who are just normal teenagers who got kind of caught by an impulsive decision. I think that that happens for a lot of the soldiers that wind up joining. I feel that a lot of Americans are very far removed from the wars, whether it be in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they don’t personally know anybody who has gone to war as a soldier. I feel like my film could make Americans feel less removed from these wars because they would feel like they knew these kids. There’s a lot of very subtle and hidden war injuries that have not been talked about. Particularly, traumatic brain injury which is the result of repeated IED blasts hitting vehicles, which is what these guys experienced. There is also PTSD. They’re subtle war wounds. TBI, traumatic brain injury is the signature war wound of the Afghan war. I think it’s important for POV audiences to learn about the majority of injuries that are happening. It’s not something that’s easily visible. It’s not something that is going to be very noticeable to people, but it’s there and it definitely affects these boys.