While many film festivals might occasionally screen war-themed movies, the GI Film Festival is the only fest dedicated exclusively to honoring America’s courageous, selfless troops through the power of cinema. Running from May 13-17 at the prestigious Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington, DC, this year’s “Seven Days in May” event will feature an eclectic mix of 48 documentaries and narrative premiere films.
MM spoke with GI Film Festival president Brandon L. Millett about this one-of-a-kind, historically significant film fest that will surely appeal to moviemakers, history buffs and veterans alike.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): GI is the first and only film fest dedicated to honoring those in the military. Why do you think it’s important to spotlight these brave men and women through film?
Brandon Millett (BM): We’re living in a time of war, and it is vitally important that we lift up the heroes who are entrusted with our protection. We’re also living in an age of film; movies and pop culture are enormously influential. As far as the military is concerned, this can work in the positive.
For example, Top Gun is perhaps the greatest recruitment vehicle the military has ever had. But this can also work in the negative. Films that portray GIs as psychotics, thieves, murderers, drug addicts and cowards can have a devastating impact on the morale of the troops, while also giving the public false impressions about our fighting men and women. The vast majority of American GIs perform courageously and heroically under extremely difficult circumstances. That’s the American warrior we know, and that’s the American warrior we want to see on the big screen. Films that portray American GI’s as the heroes generally do very well. Those that attack American GIs generally don’t generate much enthusiasm.
MM: The GI Film Festival showcases the world’s best military films. What are some of the movies attendees can look forward to seeing this year? Will it be a mix of exciting, new works and acclaimed classics?
BM: The great thing about this festival is the diversity of films we present. If you sit through our entire slate of films, you’ll experience every conceivable human emotion. We’ve got the shocking combat films, the patriotic tear-jerkers, the popcorn action films, the historical films. Here are just a few examples:
On Sunday, we’re screening an intense doc called Triangle of Death, shot by a Marine corporal, which has some of the most gritty combat footage I’ve seen yet. Earlier in the day we’ll screen a film called Jerabek, which focuses on how one Marine family struggles with losing a loved one to the War in Iraq. On Saturday, we’ve got a narrative political thriller called The Divided, where an Army intelligence officer tracks a suspected terrorist to Los Angeles and is quickly drawn into an intense battle with his friends who hold strong anti-war beliefs. And then there’s Injury Slight… Please Advise, a real-life Indiana Jones story. An ace fighter pilot is shot down over the jungles of New Guinea and has to survive the elements on foot for 30 days while escaping capture from a band of head hunters. The best thing about this film is that we’ll have the GI hero, Captain Charles Sullivan, now 90 years old, in the audience for the event. This is what is special about our festival. We’re not just screening films, we’re creating experiences for people who attend.
MM: In addition to showcasing films, will the fest feature any special events or discussions?
BM: Sure! A party every night! On Wednesday night, we’ll host a congressional reception honoring military veterans in Congress. Our special guests for that event include Arizona Senator and former POW John McCain and Medal of Honor recipient Hawaii Senator Daniel K. Inouye as well as actor Kelsey Grammer. On Thursday night we’ll host a red carpet private screening of the MGM film Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise, for our wounded warriors from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval, followed by a VIP reception.
On Friday night, we’re co-hosting the launch party for the new USO magazine On Patrol, followed by a screening of the HBO hit film Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon. And then Saturday night, we’ve got the red carpet world premiere of the film Perfect Valor, narrated by former Senator and actor Fred Dalton Thompson, who will be our special guest for this event. We’ll close out on Sunday with our awards ceremony. We’re also hosting a panel for filmmakers on Friday morning, May 15, called, “Filmmakers: Finance, Distribution, Production—Bringing Your Vision to Realization,” featuring panel moderator Steve Bannon, chairman of Genius Products, the largest DVD distribution company in the world.
MM: Are there any military veterans (or active duty GIs) whose moviemaking work will premiere at the fest?
BM: We’re very proud of the fact that we will feature the work of several active duty GIs and military veterans at this event. For example, on Wednesday night, following the congressional reception, we’re screening a special “sneak peak” of a new film called Lt. DanBand: The Documentary by Jonathan Flora, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne. The film follows actor Gary Sinise’s band, the Lt. DanBand, as it entertains the troops overseas. Another film, The Lesson is Priceless, is directed by World War II veteran George Ciampa. The film documents Ciampa’s return trip to Belgium, the scene of the U.S. Army’s greatest battle, The Battle of the Bulge; this time accompanied by combat veterans and high school teachers. I already mentioned Triangle of Death, which is a must-see doc shot by Marine Cpl. Folleh Tamba. There are others and you can read about them on our Website, http://www.gifilmfestival.com.
MM: The fest is now in its third year. How do you hope the fest will continue to evolve over time? What do you hope its reputation will be?
BM: Just like any other festival, we want to be known for screening top-quality films and for helping these films make their way into the marketplace. In just three years, we’ve already had some significant successes in this regard. One 2007 GI Film Festival premiere, Operation Homecoming, was a finalist for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Last year’s GI Film Festival “Best Feature Documentary,” Brothers at War, earned a theatrical distribution deal from the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Films and is now in theaters. Another award-winning offering from 2008, The Last 600 Meters, will be released in theaters and air on PBS in 2010. Our goal when we established the festival was to become the most significant venue in the country for screening military films. I believe we’ve reached this objective. Now, the trick is to maintain a lasting presence on the cultural landscape.