Major Laura Law-Millett did not set out to be a major film festival director. For years, the West Point graduate had served her country honorably in Bosnia, Korea, Turkey, Germany, and several other duty stations. But when she read about the latest salvo of anti-U.S. military films launching from Hollywood, she and her husband, communications professional Brandon Millett, decided to provide a venue where artists could present films that portrayed the U.S. military in a more sympathetic light.
Five years later, the co-founders of the nonprofit GI Film Festival have established, with help from sponsors ranging from Jack Daniels to American Airlines, what has become the national destination for military filmmakers, "Sundance for the troops" as Brandon Millett calls the annual festival.
Located primarily in the Naval Heritage Center's Arleigh Burke Theater in Washington, D.C., the fifth annual GI Film Festival showcased 31 narrative and documentary shorts and feature films May 9-15.
An eclectic mix of offerings from civilian film school attendees and first-time filmmakers with a military background, all of the films aspired to communicate something authentic about the experiences of American soldiers and their families. Some of the films were decidedly less than polished, particularly those by military veteran novices, yet the raw power of these veterans' experiences, from dealing with post-traumatic stress to comforting the family of a fallen comrade, shines through.
One of the festival's superior entries and the winner of its prize for best narrative feature was Flag of My Father, directed by Navy veteran Rodney Ray. Starring John Schneider (The Dukes of Hazzard, Smallville), GiGi Erneta (Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars), and William Devane (24, Knots Landing), this film explores the deep connection between an Iraq veteran (Erneta) and her Vietnam veteran father (Devane), as well as the strained relationship between that same veteran and her four older civilian brothers, who are jealous of her special relationship with their father.
Though some early scenes are tedious, the film establishes a strong emotional, at times visceral, connection with its audience. The film also demonstrates, in a seamless way, the transformational power of Jesus Christ.
In a presentation accompanying the screening of Flag of My Father, William Devane received the festival's GI Choice Award, given to an actor who positively portrays a GI in a festival film. Earning the festival's GI Spirit Award for philanthropic and/or creative work by an actor embodying the spirit of a GI was Lou Diamond Phillips, who hosts the show An Officer and a Movie for the Military Channel.
Another festival favorite, one that warranted an encore showing, was the narrative short The Telegram Man, directed by James Khehtie. Set in Australia during World War II, this elegiac film delivers a snapshot of the titular character and the wary responses of those he comes into contact with, fearful that he might be bringing them tragic news of a loved one fighting overseas. The film's power resides in two exceptional performances: Jack Thompson's quietly pained telegram man and Gary Sweet's moving performance as a potential telegram recipient. (Audiences may recognize Sweet, who recently portrayed Captain Drinian in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)
Several other gems appeared in the festival's short film block, most notably director Arthur Fishel's James Warwick, the story of an aspiring ballplayer with major-league talent who is drafted into the military during World War II and handles a series of life's curveballs by building a quiet and noble life serving others.
Though the vast majority of these films will never make it to a commercial theater, Brandon Millett announced that content from the festival will soon be available to viewers everywhere through Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. Interested viewers should note that some of these films, though gripping in their authenticity, also include "authentic" profanity and violence.