Rural America sends a disproportionate number of people into the military. Their story is told in the new movie Where Soldiers Come From. The film follows kids who graduate from high school in a small town in the U.P., join the military and go to Afghanistan. It's a story about and made by people from rural America.
Heather Courtney recalls that she was “frustrated,” troubled by “how small town America was often portrayed in the mainstream media.” She said she wanted to make a movie that would “tell a story about my rural hometown that countered those stereotypes.”
She made her movie about her hometown and it will be broadcast this evening on most PBS stations as the last film in the POV series. (Check your local schedule here.) Courtney’s film is called Where Soldiers Come From and you should watch it. (The film’s trailer is above.)
Since the beginning of the nation’s wars in, first, Iraq, and then Afghanistan, rural residents have been over-represented in the military. Courtney comes from rural America. She grew up on the northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Courtney was back home in February 2007, reading the latest issue of the Mining Gazette, the daily newspaper coming out of her hometown, Houghton, Michigan. She saw a story about the town’s National Guard unit.
“I didn’t even realize that a National Guard unit existed up there,” Courtney says, “so I went to one of their monthly trainings to check it out, and that’s where I met Dominic.”
Dominic Fredianelli is the star of the film (if a documentary about a group of young people can have a star). Dom told Heather that first day they met how he and his high school buddies had joined the Guard together immediately after graduation from the high school in Hancock.
Heather listened and realized she had found her story.
Where Soldiers Come From is a movie about a group of kids from a part of the country with cold weather, high unemployment and incomparable beauty. Courtney spent more than two years filming Dom and his friends as they went through training, were called into active duty and then sent to Afghanistan. She filmed girlfriends and parents as they sent their loved ones off to war and then waited for them to return. And when the guys went overseas in January 2009, Courtney went with them, spending four and a half months in all following the Michigan Guard unit.
“My thought at the time was that it was more of a story about growing up,” Courtney told Austin American-Statesman reviewer Matthew Odam. “These guys were trying to figure out how to change their situation, how to get out of town or go to college. And I thought it could be interesting to sort of follow them as they’re going through this time period when you change quite a bit and the decisions you make have a big effect on you.”
The movie becomes more than that. Where Soldiers Come From is important because, for the first time, there is a film that shows why rural communities become the places that send so many of their young to war.
Courtney follows ten guys and their girl friends as they confront life after high school in the UP. They roam the ruins of the old and now abandoned mining works — this was copper country — that hug the shores of Lake Superior. These kids grew up in a place with an economy that had passed it by. Dom and his fellow graduates joined the Guard because there were very few other ways to turn.
The film is beautifully shot. The UP around Hancock is stunning. But the beauty of Courtney’s film is the way it brings you into the families of Dom, his friends and their community. You see the war from both sides —the monotony and danger in Afghanistan and the struggle by parents and girlfriends to make a living back home while constantly thinking of what might be happening overseas.
Where Soldiers Come From isn’t just about the war. It’s about a people and the place where they live.
“I don’t think it’s really important what I think politically about the war,” Courtney told the American-Statesman. “I really think my film is not a war movie. It’s really about much more than that. It is a film about friendship and family. It’s also about the war at home, I guess you could say, how the town’s changed, how the family has changed by this very faraway war. And how the war continues when they go home and have to rebuild their civilian lives and how difficult that is. It doesn’t end because they’re back home.”
Dom and his classmates do make it back home, but not without injury. They had all been rattled by roadside bombs. Courtney captures one incident when an explosion flips a Michigan Guard vehicle.
And Courtney’s film shows that life after coming back from war is difficult. The economy is no better for the high school buddies than when they left for the military. Many of the guys are suffering from brain injuries, emotional trauma and depression.
The last part of the movie is about struggles with hospital appointments and employment. They left Hancock as recent high school graduates. By the end of the movie they are 23-year-old combat veterans trying to find their way in civilian life.
“Coming home is harder than going over there,” said Bodi, one of the Hancock graduates Courtney follows. “I’d rather be back in Afghanistan. Life is easier. All you have to worry about is getting blown up.”
Dom enters an art program and pours himself into his drawing. His girlfriend worries about an anger that Dom didn’t have before the war. Dom describes himself as “an antisocial nutcase.” He finds himself and a measure of peace and fulfillment in a huge graffiti project he begins at the urging of an art professor. The unveiling of Dom’s project is a small triumph near the end of the movie.
Earlier this year, hundreds of rural residents gathered in St. Paul for the National Rural Assembly. Late one afternoon, Dom and Heather showed clips from the film. There was a great discussion about the movie and veterans living in rural communities. After it was over, Dom told Heather that of all the sessions across the country where they had talked about Where Soldiers Come From this had been the best.
Why, Heather asked. “Because these people really understood,” Dom answered.
Where Soldiers Come From is a picture of our time, a movie made about and by people from rural America.