"Where Soldiers Come From" is a tender, nuanced examination of high school pals from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who join the National Guard and find themselves deployed to Afghanistan.
The documentary, which appears Thursday on PBS, could easily have been shot in northern Minnesota, complete with snowmobiles, "Fargo" accents and a dreary sense of the dead end that drives the group to join the National Guard.
"I wasn't really doing anything: My buddies already joined," says one at one point. "I figured, 'Twenty G's, one weekend a month, let's do it.'"
The film follows them before, during and after a nine-month deployment to eastern Afghanistan in 2009, assigned to clear mines. Filmmaker Heather Courtney returned to the place she grew up to find Dominic, the artist; Cole, the comedian, and Bodi, whose family has a history of military service. Courtney traveled to Afghanistan to capture the evolution of the men as their deployment continued. At one point, Bodi has been "blown up" so many times that he can't go on missions because of the concussions he's suffered. Dom, too, returns home with a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, but he eventually finds some solace in a graffiti project his art teacher encourages him to complete. Cole develops ulcers and can't eat, and all the soldiers down Vicks NyQuil just to sleep at night.
Back home, dads are on disability from Wal-Mart and moms, sisters and girlfriends work dreary jobs at restaurants, bars and nursing homes. The industrial detritus from the decline of the Upper Peninsula copper industry ironically resembles some of the bombed out portions of Afghanistan.
Courtney makes no political statement with the film, although the soldiers seem to clearly return home with a sense that it wasn't worth it.
"I'd rather be back in Afghanistan," Bodi says. "Life is easier. All you have to worry about is getting blown up."
It is scheduled to air locally on TPT, Channel 2 at 9 p.m. on the documentary program "POV." firstname.lastname@example.org. • 612-673-4434