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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Oct. 7, 2011 | 8:18 PM

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This October marks the tenth year of the United States war in Afghanistan.  This makes the Afghan conflict the longest in American History.  It would be a fantastic thing if documentaries like WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM had no reason to exist.  But the war continues, and fortunately, Heather Courtney’s film is a startlingly intimate look at who’s fighting it, and at what cost.

The film focuses primarily on three close friends, Bodi, Cole, and Dom, who all grew up together in a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. UPers, as they’re known, are a unique breed, and they’re quick to tell you that the region is so remote that it may as well be a separate state.  Courtney is from the peninsula herself, and wisely realizes that her hometown provides the perfect backdrop for this particular war story.  The Afghan war has been going on for so long, and at such a great distance, that it tends to exist mainly as an abstraction for most Americans these days.  Where Soldiers Come From reminds us that the men and women fighting over there have names, faces, girlfrends, and parents.

Courtney has a keen eye for the picturesque Michigan landscape, but her film also reveals the drudgery of small town life.  The young men featured in the film essentially join the National Guard out of boredom, even though they know that they’re likely to see active duty.  Like many people in their late teens, their lives haven’t come into focus yet, although Dom appears at the film’s outset to be well on his way to becoming a talented artist.

Deployed to Afghanistan to defuse IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), the group quickly realizes that what seemed like a great adventure at first, often proves to be every bit as tedious as life back home.  The difference is you can also get blown up at any moment. What’s worse, as their deployment continues, they realize that they’re trapped in a vicious circle.  They’ve been assigned to dismantle bombs which have been planted as an assault on the U.S. military presence.  In other words, if the army wasn’t there, there would no bombs for the army to get rid of.  It doesn’t take long before the men realize that they’re a long way from the heroics of the WWII films they grew up idolizing.

In spite of struggling with the apparent futility of their mission, none of the men are immune to the poignancy of the hero’s welcome they receive upon their return to the U.P.  “This is possibly the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me”, Cole says as he sees the townspeople line the streets.  But the celebratory moments are fleeting, and soon all of the men are forced to deal with the aftermath. 

The access Courtney’s granted in this film is remarkable, and only could come from her taking advantage of her local ties. The film’s subjects all seem to have no reservations about opening up about their experiences on camera. Courtney herself stays out of the film, for the most part, although there are a couple of moments where certain interviewees address her by name.

WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM should be required viewing for anyone contemplating joining the armed forces during these difficult times. The film never questions the heroics of these U.P. soldiers, it just reminds us that they deserve better.

WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM opens Friday, October 7th at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theatre in West Hollywood.  Visit for a list of guests appearing for post film discussion throughout the run.

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