Distant both culturally and geographically from the rest of the state, the Upper Peninsula is a part of Michigan that’s easily forgotten. However, documentary filmmaker Heather Courtney (“Letters From the Other Side”) calls this place home. In her new film “Where Soldiers Come From,” she does her best to make sure it’s not forgotten as she follows the lives of a group of friends from the Upper Peninsula to Afghanistan and back again.
“The original idea was to go back to the place I was from and do a story about rural America because it’s a place that’s not very well represented in mainstream film and television,” Courtney said. “So that was my motivation in the beginning.”
She started to get a better idea of the film’s narrative as she began to flip through her local paper for story ideas and found an article about the National Guard. She went to watch the training and met Dominic and Cole, the two young men whose story she would capture on film.
“Being from there actually made it easier for me because when you’re doing a documentary, half the battle is getting access to the people you want to film,” Courtney said. “You really have to become part of the community.”
She thought it would be interesting to focus on a group of friends in the National Guard when they were 19 years old and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Though the friends were in the National Guard, the film would primarily be a coming-of-age story.
“Then, a year and a half into shooting, they were deployed to Afghanistan,” Courtney said. “Then — well, it was still a coming-of-age film, but in the context of war.”
Once the young men in the film were deployed, the story changed. Courtney had just been filming their lives as they happened and wasn’t planning on going to Afghanistan, but suddenly the film wasn’t about a small town in rural America. The narrative became much larger and Courtney found herself following these young soldiers through the mountains of Afghanistan.
“You have to sort of trust that you’re following these people and that they’re people with lives worth telling, worth showing because they represent most people in America. These are universal stories and there’s a lot of value to it,” Courtney said.
She also made sure to capture the difficulties of the young men’s return to complete the story, focusing on issues of assimilation and how they dealt with things like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“With the National Guard, you’re not coming back to a military base, you’re not a soldier full time so you go from teenager to soldier to being a hardened combat veteran and you’re trying to live a normal life again,” Courtney said.
Courtney spent four years working on the film, traveling back and forth between the U.P., Afghanistan and her home in Austin, Tex. She ended up with 650 hours of footage and edited it down to 90 minutes.
“I feel much more connected to the place I’m from because of it,” Courtney said. “I hadn’t really spent much time there since going off to college. It’s really beautiful up there, and natural beauty is a big part of the film.”
The loveliness of the setting does not take away from harsh reality. According to Courtney, places like the U.P. are disproportionally represented in wars because they send more of their sons and daughters off to combat than urban or suburban America despite the fact that rural America is so easily overlooked.
“For me, it’s a film about friendship and family and a portrait of a town and a town that’s very easy to forget about,” Courtney said. “Most Americans are very removed from the wars because they don’t know anyone who has gone. I think the film because it’s such a human story … can help people feel they do know people who’ve gone off to war so it makes it harder to forget.”
“Where Soldiers Come From” showed at the Michigan Theater on Saturday and will be broadcasted on PBS’s POV documentary series on Thursday, Nov. 10.