Every soldier is obviously unique and special – to their families and friends at least – but as subjects for documentaries, some are more generic than others. In Heather Courtney’s no-frills Where Soldiers Come From, the very average-ness of the men she follows into war and back becomes the point.
The four-year project began in Courtney’s hometown of Hancock, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she found a group of aimless 19 and 20-year-old friends who’d joined the National Guard for the money and lack of anything better to do. Before long, they found themselves in Afghanistan, clearing the road of IED’s – improvised explosive devices.
Courtney’s approach is unobtrusive as she films the friends and their families going through their ordinary days, and at times talking to the camera, but film doesn’t need commentary to feed the image of an army relying on the undereducated and unemployed. When one soldier’s mother compares the friends to the characters in The Deer Hunter she’s not wrong.
The central character and most forceful personality is Dominic, a would-be artist who does graffiti caricatures and who prodded his friends to join the National Guard with him. His life-long best friend, Cole, seems to have no direction or ambition. And Bodi, whom we see less than the other two, shrugs with a “Might as well” attitude as he explains that he’s following the military pattern of his family. Their decisions seem utterly weightless to them.
Of course that changes when they arrive in Afghanistan, determined to do their best and no longer stunned to be there. Courtney (whose films include Letters From the Other Side, about Mexican immigrant families on both sides of the border) occasionally has a great eye for detail; we learn that the friends regularly swill Nyquil to help them sleep, a fact that sheds light on the brave fronts they present. Bodi gets so many concussions that he’s barred from going on any more bomb-sweeping missions.
Inevitably there is the drama of an explosion, although the film never becomes as dramatic as The Hurt Locker – an aspect that reinforces its reality.
All this is absorbing if – harsh but true – a little too familiar. It’s when Courtney follows the men home after their 9 months at war that the film seems freshest. There is a truly touching scene of people lining the streets of town to welcome their National Guard unit home. And the returned soldiers are changed. One is angrier but more focused. Another, who calls himself “an idiot” for having gone, is as aimless as ever. A third has Traumatic Brain Injury mild enough to allow him to function but severe enough to hamper the rest of his life. What Soldiers Return To is the more compelling part of the story.
These soldiers’ stories keep you with them, even though Courtney’s straightforward style is as generic as its subjects. Where Soldiers Come From never quite makes these men seem special – an artistic weakness that, as it reminds us how common such stories are, oddly becomes the film’s strength.