The Long Way Home

Austin documentarian Heather Courtney travels to Afghanistan, by way of her native Michigan

Heather Courtney
Heather Courtney (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

In a departure from her earlier films, 2001's Los Trabajadores and 2006's Letters From the Other Side, which told the stories of immigrant workers and the families they left behind, Austin filmmaker Heather Courtney went looking for a story to tell about the place she was from – the upper peninsula in the remote, frozen region of northern Michigan. With no clear idea of what that story might be, she happened to meet Dominic, a 19-year-old who had joined the National Guard just out of high school. When he introduced her to a group of his friends from high school who'd also joined up after graduation, Courtney knew she might have a story.

Shortly into her shoot, "a narrative began to emerge about this group of small-town childhood friends who were making those decisions and taking those steps all of us make when we're trying to change our situation and figure out how to make the leap to adulthood," says Courtney. While she was not overtly looking for a war movie, she followed the boys into their National Guard training, and it was only a matter of time before she was getting fitted with a 40-pound flak jacket (and in tears over how she was supposed to wear that and still wield a camera) and then shipping off to embed with Dominic and his friends in Afghanistan. In this beautifully shot film, sharply and smartly edited (by Courtney and Kyle Henry; they won Best Editing accolades at Tuesday night's SXSW Film Awards), Courtney takes us inside this deployment and its rippling aftereffects, from the perspectives of both the guys in uniform and those at home who worried about them.

Austin Chronicle: Those scenes from inside the tanks the guys were driving as they went looking for roadside bombs were pretty terrifying. Was it?

Heather Courtney: I went to Afghanistan three times for a total of five months. The only time I was really scared was the night before we left for the first time. I flew over to Afghanistan with the National Guard unit from their mobilization station, and the night before we left, I was really scared, because I didn't know what to expect. But once I was there and filming, I really was just focused on trying to get the footage I thought I needed, and that kind of takes over. Looking for roadside bombs was a very dangerous job, but it also involves hours and hours of driving around and nothing happens. Until something happens, and then it's a big deal. But the daily existence was not the high-adrenaline, getting shot at 12 hours a day kind of existence. It was definitely a stressful, on-edge existence, but once you're there, it becomes your new reality.

AC: How did you get permission to be in the thick of things like that?

HC: I was able to get permission to embed with the National Guard unit in Afghanistan because I had already received permission from the U.S. National Guard to film their monthly trainings in Michigan, which I did for over a year before they received their deployment orders.

Where Soldiers Come From: Saturday, March 19, 2:30pm, Paramount

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Heather Courtney, Where Soldiers Come From, Los Trabajadores, Letters From the Other Side, Kyle Henry

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