I was lucky enough to catch Where Soldiers Come From before it was removed from the POV Web site. Directed by Heather Courtney, Where Soldiers Come From follows four friends from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who enlist in the National Guard and end up getting sent to Afghanistan. Courtney follows them during their times in country and over there, as they face threats of boredom, IEDS, and injuries. She also brings their girlfriends, parents, and others into the picture to show how deployment affects not only those going, but also those left behind.
Several aspects struck me about this documentary. First was the director’s access to these people’s stories. Rural communities often remain closed to outsiders for various reasons, yet this documentary continually showed rather intimate access to people’s lives. The representations of Dominic’s processes in his outdoor art, for example, offer some insight into this access. Two of the more telling moments in the film are when a girlfriend looks at the camera and addresses the director by her first name directly. Turns out the director is from that area of Michigan herself, which offers some explanation for the access she was able to get for this piece.
Another aspect that struck me was its similarity to some earlier documentaries about Iraq, including The War Tapes (more so) and Gunner Palace (less so). Directed by Deborah Scranton, The War Tapes follows a similar pattern: Several men from New Hampshire enlist in the National Guard, get shipped out for their tours, and then come home. The documentary weaves footage with interviews from the soldiers, their families, their friends, and their significant others. The soldiers face the boredom and the IED threats (among others), and they face dealing with long-term injuries and PTSD after coming home.
Shots from inside the Humvees appeared similar between them: The convoy slowly moves along and then suddenly BOOM — chaos, confusion, and smoke. The primary difference between these two documentaries is that The War Tapes contained a lot of footage from the soldiers’ own cameras, both video and still, which offered first-person insights into their experiences. Courtney operated camera for Where Soldiers Come From, though it is no less personal than The War Tapes.
Gunner Palace offers a looser connection to Where Soldiers Come From. Gunner’s Palace features the stories of soldiers stationed in Uday Hussein’s palace, though the stories come through the lens of Michael Tucker, who lived with the soldiers for two months. For the most part Gunner Palace stays with the soldiers, but one scene shows Tucker at home drinking a cup of coffee and ruminating on what it means for him to leave and for the soldiers to stay. Tucker’s camera, too, catches IEDs and other threats, and he even follows soldiers on home raids in the evenings. The loose connection here is that the filmmaker’s presence is felt in both pieces, though Courtney’s presence is much more subtle than Tucker’s presence.
All three documentaries point to particular common narratives about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — enlisting in the National Guard for various reasons, avoiding IEDs and other threats, enduring boredom, and experiencing changes both traumatic and personal as a result. All three also raise questions about the closeness of makers to the soldiers and their stories, even though the makers are not soldiers themselves.