Expertly applying a microcosmic perspective to an enormous issue, “Where Soldiers Come From” is a heartbreakingly lived-in portrait of three Afghanistan-bound soldiers from the same tiny Michigan town. Covering their lives with intimate access from before boot camp to the difficult return home, Heather Courtney’s docu packs a savage but understated punch, and should provide a bracing eye-opener and conversation-starter in its natural habitat on public television.
Though it mostly hews to a straightforward journalistic style, the film begins with an elegiac glimpse of Hancock, the modest burg in Michigan’s upper peninsula from which its protagonists originate. Boasting a close-knit community and a plethora of abandoned factories, the town offers few attractive career alternatives beyond military service, and it’s without much careful consideration that amiable childhood friends Dominic Fredianelli (a talented artist), Cole Smith and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin sign up for the National Guard fresh out of high school in 2007. Before long, the three receive their marching orders to patrol the rural roads of eastern Afghanistan for IEDs.
It’s impossible to forget what limited experience of the world these young men have before they’re thrust into one of its most dangerous places, and the cursory debriefing they’re given on the history and culture of the area — delivered by an officer who doesn’t know how to pronounce “Hamid Karzai” — certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. Once there, they encounter a scene reminiscent of “The Hurt Locker,” only far duller. Yet in between endless stretches of mechanical repairs and bull sessions, they frequently “discover” roadside explosives by simply absorbing the blasts in their armored cars. These attacks, captured by cameras mounted on the cars and the subjects’ helmets, never cease to be shocking.
Courtney mostly steers clear of politics (though the three soldiers are quite gung-ho for President Obama before they leave, and much less so when they return), and she gently probes her subjects as their displeasure evolves from wry gallows humor into outright anger. Beaudoin, who eventually suffers so many explosion-related concussions that he’s grounded from combat duty, testifies that he’s come to despise everything about Afghanistan and its people. “I never hated anyone until I joined the military,” he observes. The quieter Fredianelli’s pain is more internalized, and he develops a complicated empathy for the very people who are continually trying to blow him up. These problems only metastasize when they’re finally discharged.
While this reads like an unfortunately common story on paper, the time Courtney spends getting to know these boys before they’re deployed helps to put particularly relatable faces on the issue, and the film’s frequent cutting to their families and girlfriends back home as they nervously await phone calls and Skype sessions adds to an increasingly unbearable atmosphere as the days left on their combat tour wind down.
Pic’s tech specs are aces, and it deservedly won the documentary editing award at SXSW.