SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | March 15, 2011
Director: Heather Courtney
So, where do soldiers come from? As far as I can determine, soldiers are not delivered by a stork nor are they created by the gratuitous mating of birds and bees, but there have been several military decisions made in the last decade to make one think that soldiers are totally expendable [human] beings.
Research shows that for the most part U.S. soldiers come from poor, uneducated, rural families, and Heather Courtney’s documentary Where Soldiers Come From gives us an example of one such group of young soldiers from the Upper Peninsula of Northern Michigan. These five childhood friends (with Dominic and Cole as their de facto leaders) joined the National Guard when they graduated from high school because they were enticed by the college tuition support and $20,000 signing-bonus (the average annual income in their county is only $21,186).
When Courtney first meets the young soldiers, they are 19-years old. Where Soldiers Come From follows the soldiers for four years, beginning with their once-a-month training sojourns at the local National Guard base; remaining by their sides as the inevitable happens, they are deployed to Afghanistan to sweep for IEDs (Courtney makes a few return trips to Michigan during this time to find out how the soldiers’ families are holding up). The narrative then returns stateside as the five 23-year-old combat veterans attempt to readjust to their civilian lives again. The most amazing aspect of Where Soldiers Come From is watching Courtney’s five subjects evolve from being politically apathetic (showcased brilliantly as they listlessly observe Obama win the 2008 Presidential election on television) to becoming damningly incredulous about the U.S. military and its role in Afghanistan.
Despite the obvious temptation of bombarding the audience with additional footage of the war-torn soldiers and their families railing against U.S. economic, military, and foreign policies, Courtney refrains from turning Where Soldiers Come From into a heavy-handed political diatribe; instead, the resulting film is a deeply humanistic tale of five young men yearning to earn some basic financial stability in their futures. This, however, does not mean that the audience will refrain from bringing politics into their viewing experience, because there are a lot of political issues at the heart of Where Soldiers Come From.
Americans rarely acknowledge the existence of a rigid class system, instead we are led to believe that free market capitalism allows everyone equal opportunities to become successful, but that is far from true. Because the nation’s poor cannot afford higher education, they are left with only a few options, one of which is to join the military (during a perpetual state of wartime, no less). It is a sorry state of affairs when an entire segment of our population has to risk their lives (for senseless wars, no less) for the sole purpose of having a chance to claw their way up from the lowest economic rung of our oppressive class system. The middle class and the upper class do not have to take such risks; in the rare instances that they do join the military, it is usually of their own choice.
With two full-immersion documentaries about the Afghanistan war, Where Soldiers Come From and Armadillo screening at SXSW 2011, it is difficult to avoid comparing them. Courtney’s film utilizes an array of styles and techniques of cinematography to keep things visually stimulating, though Where Soldiers Come From never becomes as over-stylized as Armadillo. In fact, other than both documentaries utilizing cameras mounted on the soldiers (and their vehicles) while out on maneuvers (thus throwing the audience right into the middle of the action), Where Soldiers Come From and Armadillo could not be more different. Not only does Where Soldiers Come From approach its subjects with much more intimacy, but (thanks in part to its more humble production values) it also seems more honest and (dare I say) real.
(Be sure to also check out our video interview with director Heather Courtney.)