FILMMAKER HEATHER COURTNEY ON
WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM
When documentary filmmaker Heather Courtney visited her Northern Michigan hometown four years ago, she thought about making a film about rural America. She never dreamed she would find herself at war in Afghanistan filming the perils of a Michigan squad.
Courtney, who now lives in Austin, Texas, explained she was originally motivated to make a documentary about rural America because it is “not very well portrayed by the mainstream media.”
But upon meeting 19-year-old high school graduate Dominic Fredianelli, she knew she was onto something special.
“Dominic told me he joined [the local National Guard] because he needed money for college and that he joined with all his childhood friends, which I thought would be interesting to follow this group of friends,” Courtney recalled. “At the time I didn’t realize that they would be deployed. They didn’t realize it either.”
Courtney’s award-winning film, Where Soldiers Come From (now available on iTunes and other digital media), is an intimate look at the young men who fight our wars and the families and town they come from.
“When I first started filming it was more about these kids, at this point in their lives, at 19-years-old, trying to decide what to do with their lives,” Courtney explained. “And I thought it would be interesting to follow that time period. In some ways it started as a coming-of-age film. I filmed them for two years until we found out they were going to be deployed.”
Fredianelli and his platoon served in Operation Enduring Freedom looking for roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Courtney, who views her documentary as more coming-of-age than a war film, admits to finding her role as filmmaker somewhat difficult.
“I had become very close with the guys and their families and girlfriends,” she pointed out. “It was very hard to witness how much difficulty they had when they came back, and the pain of their parents and girlfriends. And it was doubly difficult because I had to film it. Filming some of those difficult moments, that was the hardest part, even harder than filming in Afghanistan.”
After their deployment, the Michigan soldiers were no longer a carefree group of friends. Repeated bombs blowing up around their convoys gave way to Traumatic Brain Injury to some, as well as disillusionment in their mission.
Where Soldiers Come From is also the story about war at home and how it affects families, loved ones and their community. But it is also a story of growing up. Not interested in politics, Courtney prefers to focus on the emotional and human aspects of the story, which comes from her filmmaking influences.
“I’m a fan of any filmmaker that’s trying to do an cinema vérité,” Courtney said. “I think Steve James does a great job of that, with Hoop Dreams and his latest film The Interrupters. That kind of filmmaking, the fly on the wall, observational stuff, has always been something I’ve tried to strive for.”
Grateful to be home and for the opportunity to get to know the place she comes from all over again, Courtney hopes audiences will appreciate and be inspired by her subjects, and friends.
“Most Americans are far removed from the Iraq and Afghanistan war,” Courtney offered, “and what I hope to do with this film is for people to really get to know these guys as normal people, before they ever went to war.”
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