Under Review: ‘Where Soldiers Come From’


The landscape of northern Michigan is bleak and cold. Jobs are scarce and people are just scraping by in wooden houses that long ago needed repainting. This is ripe ground for enlistment. A boy cynically remarks, “What else is there to do?”

Led by Cole, three friends end up enlisting in the Michigan National Guard. They get a $20,000 enlistment incentive and are eligible for the GI Bill. They are trained to work as mine detectors both inside and outside truck convoys.

Director Heather Courtney documented the boys for four years. She had extraordinary access documenting their lives before, during and after their 2008-09 deployment. She traveled with them to Afghanistan, filming them in their barracks, in farmland with metal detectors and in their vehicles during times of attack.

These young men were initially given a limited introduction to Afghanistan. The speaker thinks that “Kar-zah-ee” might still be president. They end up learning bits and pieces of the Afghan culture, history and political situation as they go.

These are kind boys who clearly state that they don’t want to kill anyone. They are just there to de-mine areas so that everyone is safe. They have close, loving families who worry and cry for their safe return. One boy says, “I don’t want to fight anyone. I’m a lover not a fighter.”

As their nine-month deployment marches on, the boys understand their purpose less and less. One says that they are there to get rid of the mines – but that they think the mines were placed there because they are there. So if they weren’t there – there would be no mines. They see their position as ridiculous.

Another comments, “Afghanistan … is a graveyard of empires. What is the point of this? Who am I fighting the war for?”

What’s different from “Restrepo” — the acclaimed doc by Hetherington and Junger on soldiers in the dangerous Korengal Valley — is that in that film the lead soldiers were disrespectful to the Afghans. In this doc these guys try to understand and are pretty gentle. However, in the end Bodi, one of the boyhood friends who ends up sidelined from IED discovery junkets because he’s suffered too many concussions from explosions, says, “I’ve learned to hate the people of Afghanistan. I’ve become a racist American now because of this war. I never really hated anybody before I came over here. My soul is trapped in this shitbox place of a country.”

The producer/director, Heather Courtney, has prepared us to understand this statement. One of the boys, in trying to explain their mission, tells that when they find an IED buried in someone’s farmland, the owner is arrested. They have now affected an entire family because the father is now sent to prison. There is regret in his voice. He explains that the farmer was both threatened and paid by the Taliban to plant this device. He relates it to himself in America saying that if someone came and told him to do something like this and threatened to kill his whole family if he didn’t, he’d be doing the same thing.

There is never this kind of reflection exhibited in “Restrepo.” However, as time moves on, there is a merging of sentiment. After you are attacked so many times a single drive to survive takes over and cultural understanding becomes pointless. Everyone just feels stuck in a job in a country that doesn’t want them there.

From the beginning candid footage of their summer life diving off the balustrade of a lighthouse on Lake Superior to interviews with their parents, the viewer gets to know these boys. The footage of their life in Afghanistan, including interchanges with Afghans, explosions and over-turned mine trucks, brings the reality of the war experience to the viewer.

Then there is the return home and a confrontation with another cost of the war experience.


opens in New York on Friday, Sept. 9, 2011

and in Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011

Filmmaker Heather Courtney and subjects from the film

will be in NYC for the premiere on 9/9/11

and in LA for the premiere on 10/7/11

Production Credits

Release: Sept. 9, 2011
Producer/Director/Cinematography: Heather Courtney
Editor: Heather Courney and Kyle Henry
Cast: Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, Matt Beaudoin (Bodi), Sharon and Brian Fredianelli with Mary, Kevin and Lindsay Smith and Ashley Baker
Runtime: 91 minutes

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