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Austin filmmaker looks beyond stereotypes to examine 'Where Soldiers Come From'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Heather Courtney grew tired of simplistic, reductive portrayals of small-town America. The documentary filmmaker wanted to reveal the depth and complexity of life in the fly-over states. Afghanistan was not in her plans.

When the Austin resident and Houghton, Mich., native headed to Michigan's Upper Peninsula in February 2007, she knew she would be able to capture some beautiful and stark footage of an unforgiving winter for a documentary, but she had little idea of an exact narrative.

Then Courtney read a story in the local newspaper about a chapter of the National Guard and sensed a possibility.

Courtney attended a Guard training session in April and met teenager Dominic Fredianelli, who had persuaded about 10 of his friends to make what they thought would be a benign commitment to earn extra money by joining the National Guard. The guys agreed to allow Courtney to document their lives and service, which would take them to the war zones of Afghanistan.

Four and a half years later, on Nov. 10, one day before Veterans Day , Courtney's documentary, "Where Soldiers Come From," will air nationally on PBS's "POV."

When Courtney began filming, neither she nor the new volunteers knew they would end up on the other side of the world.

"My thought at the time was that it was more of a story about growing up," says Courtney, a graduate of the University of Texas' Radio, Television and Film Department. "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 decision to join the Guard would affect Dom's and his friends' lives unlike any choice they had ever made. By December 2008, the young men were headed to mobilization training. They would leave for Afghanistan, with Courtney in tow, in February 2009.

During the time between volunteering with the Guard and deployment, Courtney would travel to Michigan for months at a time, filming the young men with their families, as they adjusted to the anxieties inherent with waiting to be called to duty.

Courtney, who called the open-ended process a leap of faith, says the story slowly began to reveal itself as she spent countless hours with Dom and his best friends, Cole Smith and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin. The young men offered unfettered access to the filmmaker, a key ingredient for strong storytelling.

"It definitely took a while," Courtney says of earning the trust of her subjects. "They'd go through phases, really. It just depended on their mood. They became more vulnerable during the course of the film. They pretty much trusted me when I was like, 'I'm going to Afghanistan with you.' Then they realized I was for real and was willing to do that for their story."

When the young men received word that they would be shipping off to Afghanistan, the filming accelerated. The crucible of war would heighten the daily lives of the boys and their families, as they coalesced around the unintended consequences of the choices made by the recent high school graduates.

Courtney with the unit that departed for Afghanistan in January 2009, and spent almost 4 1/2 months in the war-torn nation over three trips. She captured the trio hanging around the barracks, on foot patrol in the small villages of Afghanistan and during long bomb-sweeping rides in armored vehicles.

Courtney combines her own HD footage with low-res footage from the convoy's on-board cameras and helmet cameras to give viewers a feel for the soldiers' daily life and a visceral proximity to the action in the Khost province.

"They'd be gone for 15 to 18 hours a day and I think that helps to humanize them and make it very personal, so you get a different window into the soldiers. And also a lot of time spent in the barracks," Courtney said. "It's not just about war; it's about these young kids who are not really soldiers. None of them really saw themselves as tough soldiers; they're just kind of normal kids."

Each of the young men responded differently to the psychological, physical and ethical demands of their service. The pensive Dom felt the moral pull of empathy toward the innocent civilians of Afghanistan, while Bodi saw his sense of humor and compassion challenged by the harrowing work of patrols.

When the young men returned from their tour, they struggled to adapt to life back home. Bodi and Dom's plights were complicated by traumatic brain injuries received in Afghanistan and bureaucratic hoops they must go through to receive proper treatment. With the help of a mentor at a local college, Dom turned his introspection into art, while Bodi moved toward depression. Confounded family members patiently attempted to break through a wall created by the alien experience of war.

The more than 600 hours of filming took place during the course of two presidential administrations, but Courtney and her subjects do not emphasize the political elements of the war. Despite a couple of passing references to the hopes and expectations tied to presidential change, little time is spent on why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan or when they will return. "Where Soldiers Come From" examines with honesty and intimacy the people inside the uniform and how their service affects them and their loved ones.

"I don't think it's really important what I think politically about the war," Courtney says. "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."

Since making its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Courtney's film has enjoyed a theatrical run in New York City and played at festivals across the country. Traverse City (Mich.) Film Festival organizer and award-winning documentarian Michael Moore honored "Where Soldiers Come From" with the Founder's Award, calling the movie his favorite documentary of the year when he introduced it in July.

Last week, Courtney screened the documentary at the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., an event co-sponsored by U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee member Carl Levin of Michigan and National Guard Gen. Craig R. McKinley.

Courtney says she has received positive feedback from audiences as she has toured with the film and feels proud of fulfilling her cinematic vision.

"People are seeing a side of America and a side of war they haven't seen yet," Courtney says. "From hipsters in Austin to people in New York to film people in L.A., they all really are very moved by the film and feel very connected to the guys."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

‘Where Soldiers Come From'