D.C. film festival seeks to portray military in a better light


Tadanobu Asano, left, and Taylor Kitsch star in “Battleship,” this year’s most mainstream attraction at the GI Film Festival. The special effects/heavy action flick will preview on May 17 at the festival before opening commercially the next day. (AP/Universal Pictures)
May 10, 2012

Like a lot of Americans, Brandon L. Millett and his wife, Army Reserve Maj. Laura Law-Millett, are movie fans. But some years ago, they decided that something wasn’t quite right with Hollywood’s accounts of the military.

“We just had seen some films coming out that weren’t necessarily portraying GIs in the most favorable light,” Millett recalls. “We wanted to do something to address the situation. And we said, ‘We love movies, why not host a film festival?’ So that’s what we did.”

The couple became directors of the GI Film Festival, now in its sixth year. The 2012 festival begins Monday and runs through Sunday. Most of the screenings will be at the Navy Memorial Auditorium in downtown Washington. Special events are scheduled for nearby locations, including the Newseum and the Canadian Embassy.

Millett estimates that “95 percent of the films we screen are independent films, non-studio films. Every now and again, we’ll screen a Hollywood classic or even a new film.” Many entries are national or world premieres.

This year’s most mainstream attraction is Thursday’s preview of “Battleship,” the special-effects/heavy-action flick that will open commercially the next day. Only festival-goers with $250 VIP passes can buy their way into the E Street Cinema screening. The rest of the seats are reserved for convalescing combat veterans, who will attend for free.

“What we like to do for the wounded warriors is show them a fun action film,” Millett says, “as opposed to a more heavy documentary or something of that nature.”

There are plenty of documentaries in the lineup, including Monday night’s “Chosin.” The acclaimed 2010 movie about a brutal Korean War campaign, made by Iraq war veterans, will be shown at a black-tie dinner to honor H. Ross Perot Sr. That event is also pricey, with individual tickets ranging from $250 to $1,500. Somewhat cheaper is Saturday’s $55 salute to military spouses, with cast members from Lifetime’s “Army Wives.”

Hollywood stars are frequent guests at the GI Film Festival. This year, Joe Mantegna will receive the “GI Spirit” award, which Millett says is “for entertainers who support the troops with their philanthropic work.”

Previous festival attendees include Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kelsey Grammer and James Franco. A block of international short films, to be shown Wednesday at the Canadian Embassy, will be hosted by Pat Sajak.

One actor who has attended multiple festivals is Gary Sinise, who has been involved in veterans’ issues since playing a legless veteran in “Forrest Gump.” His Gary Sinise Foundation is one of this year’s sponsors. Among the others are USAA, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Army National Guard, Triwest Healthcare Alliance, the American Legion and Military.com.

Although the film festival’s supporters trend to the right, Millett says the military-movie showcase has no ideology. “We don’t take political positions on any particular conflict or public-policy issue. Really, we only have one political criterion, and that’s that the films that we screen portray GIs with the respect that we feel they’ve earned and that they deserve.

“But other than that, anything goes. We want to show not only the heroism and the courage and the integrity, but also to call attention to the sacrifices that our GIs are making for us on a daily basis. And their families, as well.”

Aside from the special events, Millett recommends several regularly priced programs. These include Tuesday’s screening of “Into Harm’s Way,” a 2011 documentary about the first West Point class to fight in Vietnam, and Saturday’s world premiere of “Memorial Day,” in which James Cromwell plays a World War II veteran who shares his memories with a teenage grandson who will have his own combat experiences.

The festival co-director also points to Friday’s pairing of two 9/11-related shorts: “8:46” is an ensemble drama about lives about to be changed by the attack on the World Trade Center, and “From Philadelphia to Fallujah” is a documentary about men who played in the 2001 Army-Navy football game and later went into battle.

War is hell, it’s been noted more than once, but the GI Film Festival’s fare isn’t all grim. This year the lineup includes “Jockstrap Raiders,” a World War I-themed animated comedy directed by a military filmmaker. Millett concedes that it’s “one of the few comedies we’ve had submitted to the festival.”

Such entries are part of “a tremendously diverse lineup,” he says. “By the time you finish going to all the films, you’ll experience every single conceivable human emotion.”

Millett is asked if the festival would show something like “The Invisible War,” a new documentary that alleges an epidemic of rape in the military. “It’s hard to say,” he replies. “It’s not always a black-and-white issue for us. Sometimes a film slants one way and then another.

“We have a wide range of social issues that we’ve dealt with,” he adds. “We’re doing a film on Saturday called ‘Along Recovery,’ about traumatic brain injury, which is called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

What’s important, he says, is how viewers feel about service members when the movie ends. “Do you have an appreciation or a deeper understanding of what they go through on a daily basis? If so, that film has a good chance to screen at the festival.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

GI Film Festival

runs Monday through Sunday at venues in Washington. Tickets to most films cost $12, and festival passes are available. For more information, go to gifilmfestival.com.

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