Shooting in cinema verite style, filmmaker Heather Courtney focuses on three friends from Northern Michigan - a view of small-town America - who join the National Guard and ultimately are deployed to Afghanistan. The 'Where Soldiers Come From' documentary is an intimate portrait of these changed lives and is part of the 24th season of POV (Point of View).
Director/Producer Heather Courtney. Credit: Anthony Maddaloni
Where Soldiers Come From, a co-production of Quincy Hill Films and ITVS (Independent Television Service), is an intimate portrait of a group of friends from a remote town in northern Michigan who join the National Guard and are ultimately deployed to Afghanistan. Shooting in cinéma vérité style, filmmaker Heather Courtney focuses on three of the friends - Dominic, Cole and Bodi - who come from her own hometown, Hancock. The documentary is part of the 24th season of POV (Point of View).
Director/producer Courtney has a background as a still photographer and received her graduate degree in film at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is now based. Her previous documentaries include award-winners Letters from the Other Side and Los Trabajadores/The Workers, both of which aired on PBS and screened at festivals worldwide.
COW: Tell me a bit about the genesis of the film's topic. You originally went back to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to tell a story about small town America. How did that become a story about soldiers and the war in Afghanistan?
Courtney: When I went back to Hancock, I didn't really have any idea of what story I was going to tell. I just knew I wanted to do something in my hometown. I began reading the local newspaper, The Daily Mining Gazette, and read about the local National Guard unit. I didn't even know a unit existed, so I went to the monthly meeting and met Dominic, a sensitive artistic high school graduate. He had joined to get the $20,000 signing bonus, which would help pay for college, in exchange for just one weekend training a month. He pointed to some other young men, and said that he had joined with all his childhood friends. That's when I thought it could be an interesting story.
Director Heather Courtney filming in Hancock, Michigan. Credit: Justin Hennard
At that moment, none of us knew they were going to be deployed. For the first year I shot, it was a coming-of-age story. I thought it would be interesting to follow what they were doing and how they were figuring out what they were going to do next. About a year into filming, they found out they would be deployed to Afghanistan. I still feel that it's a coming of age story, but within the context of war and how it changes them, their families and the community.
As soon as I found out they were going to be deployed, I knew that I had to try to deploy with them, to tell their story more fully. Because I had been filming their training for so long, everyone in the unit knew me… the commander knew me. When I asked if I could go with them, the commander said it was fine as long as I got permission from the military command in Afghanistan. It's not as difficult as you think it might be. I got the contact information, emailed them and they sent me a form that I had to fill out online. The fact that I was embedding with one unit I already knew made it easier. I had a letter from ITVS saying I was doing a documentary that might be on PBS one day. The military is very open to filmmakers and journalists going there.
So much of the photography is quite beautiful, which is such a contrast to the story you're telling about young men going to war.
To me, this region, this town, is a character in the documentary. It is stark and desolate with beautiful winters, Lake Superior, and then these old abandoned buildings. I started taking photos of old abandoned mines with a still camera I was younger. As it happened, I had some 16mm film in my refrigerator that I'd won four or five years before from a festival and never used. I thought it would be cool to shoot those early scenes in the winter with that 16mm film; my colleague Justin Hennard shot those scenes. From the very beginning, even before I met Dominic, Cole and Bodi, I wanted to bring the place to life through visuals and I knew B&W 16mm film would work well with the starkness and graininess.
Where Soldiers Come From. Credit: Heather Courtney
In addition to the 16mm film, what camera did you use?
The 16mm was a very small part of the filmmaking. We shot some visuals around the town during the winter and the scenes when Dominic painted his mural.
Dom and Cole pose in front of Dom's mural. Credit: Heather Courtney
Otherwise, I used the Panasonic HVX-200, which I bought about nine months into filming. Prior to that, I had been shooting with another Panasonic camera that I'd borrowed. It wasn't HD but I liked the look; it has a warm color palette that I liked. I wanted to stick with Panasonic, especially since I'd already been shooting with a Panasonic. I liked the fact that I could shoot HD or SD, and the HVX-200 was affordable and I was comfortable using it.
Director Heather Courtney in convoy in Afghanistan. Credit: Bryan Quello
I shot quite a lot of SD because I was a one-woman band, a one-person crew. I didn't have a cameraperson or crew for all the time I was in Afghanistan so I couldn't shoot on the P2 cards. The P2 cards at that time were quite small -- only 8 gigabytes. Shooting vérité and letting the camera just roll, I couldn't shoot with P2 cards unless I had had someone whose job it was to download them. I'd shoot P2 for the slo-mo sequences and some other scenes in Michigan when I couldn't shoot film. It was native 16x9 -- even the SD.
The majority of what I shot was handheld. The 16mm footage was on sticks, and the interviews and some of the more visual shots were on a tripod. But the majority of the vérité stuff was handheld.
In Afghanistan, I used helmet cams -- very small cameras with SD cards in them. I attached them to the gun turret on the trucks, and then to the dashboards inside the truck. I had to ride in the back of the truck and film out the small window. The helmet cams got the other footage, including all the explosions that went off. I got the helmet cams online; hunters, bikers, soldiers, and others use them. They attach to any hat. Now there's the GoPro, which everyone uses now.
Were you concerned that you weren't shooting in HD?
At the time, the Panasonic HVX-200 was one of the top prosumer cameras you could get. At the time we started shooting, HD wasn't that much of a concern. We up-resed everything to HD at the end, and it looks great. We've played it in theatres all over, and no one would say, "Oh this looks like SD that's been up-resed."
I think nowadays it's pretty much required to shoot in HD, and I clearly have to get a new camera for my next project. It seems everyone is shooting with the Canon 5D and 7D, but I don't know what I'll buy.
Did you do any editing during that two-year period when you were shooting in Michigan?
Oh yes, we edited while we were shooting the whole time. Otherwise, I would still be editing. I think I shot about 650 hours of footage over 4 years. Using FCP 6, I co-edited with Kyle Henry, who started about a year into the project, after I got funding from ITVS and could hire him. There was so much footage, a lot of what he did then was make selects of scenes, working with assistant editors and interns. As the process went on, I'd come back to Austin every couple of months and we'd make rough cuts. Kyle worked off and on for three years, part-time. When he wasn't editing, I was editing; it was very much a team effort.
Dom in the abandoned building where he paints murals. Credit: Heather Courtney
We were lucky and got invited as fellows to the Sundance Edit and Story Lab. It's a week-long experience where you show your rough cut and then work with editing and story advisors to figure out what to do to make it better. It was a real turning point for the film. I'd been shooting non-stop for three-and-a-half years. You get caught up with new deadlines and new footage but you're not looking at the big picture.
After the Lab, we took the next few months to go through the footage and make the cut more personal, more focused on why I started the film to begin with. I shot one more time after that, in June/July and then we finished in February this year. It was another six months of editing -- and I was able to concentrate almost fully on editing. When you're shooting and editing at the same tine, it's hard to take a step back.
Talk about your time shooting in Afghanistan. What were your biggest challenges?
I went to Afghanistan three times for a total of five months. The whole thing was quite challenging. When I realized I'd be in this truck with small windows in the back, I saw how very limited I'd be. We rarely got out of the truck and walked around. I tried to figure out how I could do this and that's when I got the idea for the helmet cams. Also what was great was getting the audio. We all wore headsets to hear and talk to each other in the trucks. I taped a wireless mic to each of the headsets we had to wear and that's how I recorded all those conversations. Those conversations humanize these guys. It's just regular guys talking about regular stuff.
During the one scene of the big IED that flips Dominic's truck, I wasn't in that truck when it happened. I usually rode with Dominic in his truck, but I was in a different truck the day that IED went off. I was often in the convoy when another truck was hit by an IED. If I'd been in the truck, I don't know what would have happened. Of course when it happened, we all thought he could have been killed.
What did you discover during the editing process about the story you were telling. Any surprises?
I think the biggest thing I was struck by was when we were going over some old interviews from the beginning to see if we missed anything, and re-editing the new interviews just before I finished filming. We compared how Dominic and Cole looked in the very beginning and at the very end. In their faces alone you could see how much they changed...a loss of innocence and a real weariness that hadn't existed before.
That was very surprising to me.
After starting to tell a story about small town America, you ended up telling a story that was about soldiers and veterans. How do you characterize the documentary you created?
I would say it's a coming of age story set in the context of war, that shows not just how much these guys change, but their loved ones, their families…the whole town. It's as much about the friendships and family as much as it is a film about war. I hope people watching it will feel connected to the people on the screen, even if they're different from their own experience. That way they'll know someone who's gone off to war, because most Americans don't know anybody personally who's gone there. It's important that more Americans feel more connected to these guys doing this.
Cole at National Guard Annual Training. Credit: Lucie Bourgeau
The film, which aired on PBS on Nov. 10 at 9 pm on PBS, will stream in its entirety on the POV website from Nov. 11 through Dec. 11.
Title credit: Cole greets crowd Credit: Heather Courtney
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