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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “Where Soldiers Come From” Director Heather Courtney

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Where Soldiers Come From" Director Heather Courtney

From a snowy small town in Northern Michigan to the mountains of Afghanistan and back, “Where Soldiers Come From” follows the four-year journey of childhood friends and their town, forever changed by a faraway war. At its heart a story about growing up, the film is an intimate look at the young men who fight our wars, the families and town they come from, and the everyday struggles of their return. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Where Soldiers Come From”
Documentary Competition
Director: Heather Courtney
Producer: Heather Courtney, Megan Gilbride (Co-Producer), David Hartstein (Co-Producer)
Cinematographer: Heather Courtney, Justin Hennard
Editor: Kyle Henry, Heather Courtney, Tom Haneke
Sound: Justin Hennard (location), Tom Hammond (re-recording/mixing)
Music: Various

Responses courtesy of “Where Soldiers Come From” Director Heather Courtney.

How times spent abroad lead to filmmaking interest…

I was working for an international relief agency in a Rwandan refugee camp on the Rwanda/Tanzania border. My job was to write and photograph the stories of people who had seen things most of us could never imagine. When I returned to the U.S. a year later, I decided that I wanted to combine the written word with the visual and use the medium of film to better tell these stories. Once in film school I explored making narrative and more experimental films, but it wasn’t until my thesis film, a documentary about immigrant day laborers in Texas, that I knew I had found something I really wanted to do. The men in my film were husbands, sons, and fathers whose only “crime” was coming to the U.S. to work hard and make money to send to their families in Mexico or Central America. And yet an entire neighborhood rose up against their presence in their community, and I was driven by the thought that “if only they got to know these people, they would realize they’re people just like them, and want them in their community.”

That idea of using film to make connections between people who would not normally know each other or even like each other, and challenge their previously held assumptions, is still what drives me today to continue to make documentaries that tell very human personal stories.

Countering stereotypes…

A little over four years ago, I returned to the shores of Lake Superior, on the northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to explore the idea of making a film about the place I come from. Frustrated with how small-town America was often portrayed in the mainstream media, I wanted to tell a story about my rural hometown that countered those stereotypes. With no clear idea of what my story would be, I began to peruse the local paper (the Daily Mining Gazette) and read about the local National Guard unit. I didn’t even realize that a National Guard unit existed up there (I later learned that many National Guard armories are based in rural areas across the U.S.), so I went to one of their monthly trainings to check it out, and that’s where I met Dominic. As he stood with his buddies, Dom told me he joined the National Guard after graduating from high school, for the signing bonus and the college tuition support. Pointing to the group of teenaged boys around him, he said, “These are my friends and we all joined more or less together.”

It was then that I knew I might have a story. In the first weeks I was filming, a narrative began to emerge about a group of childhood friends who were making those decisions and taking those steps all of us make when we’re trying to change our situation and figure out how to make the leap to adulthood. Focusing on this crucial moment in a kid’s life, while opening a window to the place and people they’re from, have always been more important to me than telling a story about war.

I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19 and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I also spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends. My goal was to get to know them as people rather than soldiers, and by knowing them and their families and town before they leave, we see how they all change over these four years.

When the boys did go to war, I went with them and filmed in Afghanistan off and on for a total of 5 months during their 9-month deployment. I also returned to Michigan several times during their deployment to show the effect on those left behind, and was with them when they returned from war, filming their first year adjusting back to civilian life. Eventually, my film becomes a story about the war at home, how it affects families, loved ones and communities here, and how the war continues at home when these young men return from a year in combat. But at its heart, it is still a film about growing up.

Staying out of the way…

My approach was to try and be as unobtrusive as possible with the goal of capturing on camera whatever these guys were experiencing. For the majority of the time, I filmed alone, just me and my camera and a few wireless lavs, because I felt like having other crew members and equipment might make it uncomfortable for those being filmed. Also, because I filmed for such a long period of time, and spent so many hours just hanging out without filming, it wasn’t financially or logistically feasible to hire a cameraperson or other crew to just hang out in northern Michigan with me. So, I wound up doing much of it alone.

In addition to this more verite footage, I did interviews occasionally to include their thoughts on what was happening to them, and to give them a voice. But these weren’t standard interviews, in a well-lit controlled environment. Like with the verite shooting, I tried to make the environment and the rapport in the interviews as natural and comfortable as possible, so just me and the camera, no lights, and in places that were comfortable for the subjects.

The exception to my filming alone was the 16mm film shoots that I did to capture the feel of the place and to film with more care the more visual scenes in Michigan, like the sledding and the mural painting. With the talents of cinematographer Justin Hennard, there was definitely a lot more planning and crew involved in these scenes, although the sledding and the mural painting were still verite to a degree, just with less constant rolling of the camera.

The most important factor in my approach to filming was time. I spent the time necessary, which meant many hours of footage, because often you have to roll for several hours before you get one great sound bite, or a great nugget of information, or something amazing and completely unexpected happens in front of the camera. It also meant just being there, without the camera, and hanging out with these people you are asking to open up their lives to you. You can’t just walk into a place and start filming, or only film. You are asking so much of people, you need to respect that, and put in the time, so much of which is not about filming or getting some great sound bite on camera.

I know that a documentary is never completely the truth. It is always told through the filter of the director and the production/editing process. But what I strive for is to capture moments that are true, and to tell the story sincerely. In doing this, I hope that audiences will question a previously held belief, or change their perspective, or discover a truth about themselves. Ultimately I hope they connect with and learn from the people on the screen, even if these people are very different from themselves or their own experience.

Trusting the process…

Probably the hardest thing for me was trusting the process. If you are trying to capture events, life changes, and daily living as it is happening, you need to learn to let go, and not try and control things so much. You have to have patience and be ok with the fact that this is something that is going to take a long time, and you can’t rush it. Through it all, I’ve learned that most often the best things in a documentary film are the things you don’t or could never plan for, but that you are just there for.

Feeling the weight…

Another challenge for me was wearing a 40-pound flak jacket while trying to film. I remember putting it on for the first time at the pre-deployment training in Mississippi a few weeks before leaving for Afghanistan. Within an hour of wearing it, I was in tears and seriously thinking, “there is no way I can wear this flak jacket and make a documentary film at the same time.” But, after a few days of wearing the flak (as part of the training, we had to wear them even to the bathroom!), I started to get used to it and realized I would be able to do it, or I would make myself do it.

As for other anecdotes, stories, and behind-the-scenes antics, you’ll just have to wait for the DVD extras!

Plans for the future…

I’m not sure at the moment, but I hope they will involve a Caribbean beach, and a piña colada or two.

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