Recap of ‘The GI Film Festival’ – May 18-24, 2015

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The GI Film Festival is in its ninth year and has grown so big. It ended yesterday at the huge and swanky Angelika Film Center in the Mosaic District in Fairfax, VA. They showed a record number of movies this year, over 60 movies, with movies shown in two separate theaters at the same time. In addition there were the main features at night, with movies each night at 7 pm. Just incredible! Also enjoyable were the red carpets, after parties, networking events, filmmaking bootcamp, and the questions and answers after the films.

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I wasn’t able to attend everything, because it was overwhelming, but I attended quite a bit. Tuesday night was the Casablanca screening starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and the Casablanca party hosted by Chicago Fire actress Linda Powell. At 7 pm Casablanca was shown and there was a screen inside the theater showing moviegoers’ live tweets. After the movie, the GI Film Festival had a fun party next door with casino tables, yummy food, drinks and door prizes. Just a wonderful night!! At the same time as the Casablanca party, the Film Noir block was shown which sadly I didn’t get to. Like I said, it was impossible to see everything!

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Wednesday night I attended the ‘Wounded Warrior Night,’ hosted by the Gary Sinise Foundation, with their special advanced screening of Spy starring the hilarious Melissa McCarthy, the dashing Jude Law, the action star Jason Statham, and the glamorous Rose Byrne.

Spy is directed by Paul Feig. The theater was packed with our young military and wounded heroes. The movie is hysterical!! The audience laughed continuously. It is a feminist take on a spy movie with a hilarious twist. It is nice to see a strong feminine character own a movie like McCarthy. It was fun to see Jason Statham not take himself so seriously. His character would over-share how amazing he was at being a spy. McCarthy’s character would just look at him dumbfounded and tell him she didn’t quite believe all of his endeavors. I highly recommend this movie!

At the ‘Wounded Warrior Night,’ I met and the audience heard from retired Navy SEAL Jason Redman who works with the Gary Sinise Foundation. He was shot seven times including his face. He was introduced prior to the film and came across as down to earth and humble. Later I learned, that the Navy SEALS pride themselves on humility, as it is the key in accomplishing their mission. Redman spoke about his involvement with the Gary Sinise Foundation, and shared his pride in serving his country and how he didn’t feel sorry for himself after his injuries. He said, “I’m still a handsome guy despite being shot in the face.”

Actress Melissa Fitzgerald also spoke. She starred on The West Wing and others. She shared her castmate from The West Wing, Allison Janney, stars in Spy and how proud she that her movie was being shown to wounded heroes. Fitzgerald has turned her focus to helping veterans now as Senior Director of Justice for Vets. Justice for Vets helps create Veterans Treatment Courts. Veterans Treatment Courts help veterans get correct treatment for alcohol and drug abuse to avoid jail. Many veterans turn to alcohol or drugs to mask their traumas from their war experience.

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US Naval Academy graduate Montel Williams hosted Thursday’s night showing of Kajaki: The True Story. Williams did an excellent job asking questions and moderating the Q&A after the movie showing. I asked Williams who he was remembering for Memorial Day and he emotionally said, “I’ve lost too many classmates to count, but I’m remembering them all this Memorial Day.” Williams was clearly moved at the GI Film Festival and promised to continue to support the GI Film Festival in any way he could. He said, “We need to do more to help our veterans when they come home.”

Kajaki tells the true story about British troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. It is from the Academy Award-winning producer of The King’s Speech, and is BAFTA nominated.

Director Paul Katis told me he wanted to do a movie on British soldiers as the United Kingdom tends to stay mum on what their soldiers do. “You see many American war films, but you hardly ever see British war films.” He said the reception has been fantastic in England. He wanted to give a realistic portrayal of what the war was really like. He said the movie has received kudos for its realism. He shot the movie in Jordan in the hot heat. He said that none of the actors complained about the heat and worked hard at giving accurate portrayals of the British troops.

The actors from Kajaki: The True Story performed well, but the graphic nature of showing their blown off legs was very difficult for me to watch. The true story is about British troops in Kajaki, Afghanistan who end up in a dry water dam filled with landmines. One soldier steps on a mine and loses part of his leg, then another does too. All the soldiers work together to save the soldiers, but then a helicopter comes by and the pressure of the helicopter blows up more mines and more soldiers were injured.

I met one of the British soldiers who survived and is missing part of his leg. I also met the Air Force pararescuemen who saved the British soldiers. Talk about inspiring! The biggest hurdle the British soldiers faced was the communication channels. The British had to contact the British base then the British base had to go up the chain of command to then reach out to the Americans to rescue the British soldiers. No one was using the same radio frequency. In addition, the flight to reach the British soldiers was over an hour and a half away. The fact that only one British soldier died is miraculous. The British soldier shared how he now sails and skis full-time.  He is training to be in the Paralympics.

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After Kajaki: The True Story, I watched Battle Scars, directed by Danny Buday. Battle Scars tackled a sensitive topic that no one talks about: losing your genitals to a bomb blast. It is a common injury, but no one seems to talk about it. The film handles the storyline with dignity. A young marine returns home from war not himself. He struggles with PTSD, the loss of his manhood, and his relationship with his wife, so he escapes to his brother’s house. To escape even more he hits a strip club where he ends up getting into deep trouble. He also has to contend with his dad, played by JAG’s David James Elliott, who is having a midlife crisis and chides his two sons constantly.

The standout was actress Fairuza Balk, better known from the movie The Craft. She scared the bejesus out of me as the dangerous strip club owner. The audience praised the movie for tackling this rarely-spoken injury. They shot this movie for under $1 million. They researched strip clubs and how gritty the underworld is. A very powerful film.

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On Saturday, I saw two blocks of films. The first block featured Home Range. Shot beautifully by Natalia Kaniasty, it showcases a handsome, young veteran struggling with PTSD as he tries to connect with a beautiful girl named Beth and with his friends. It was gorgeously shot in the cold of winter in Pennsylvania. I loved how the veteran’s mom spoke Polish to him, which is quite common in the small Pennsylvania towns where some of my family is from.

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Next, I saw the hilarious Ostrichland, directed by David McCracken. It’s about two brothers who go to Roswell, New Mexico to grab their veteran dad’s stuff from his shed after he died. One brother is a vegetarian and the other is a meat eater. They fight over who is closer to their dad. One brother insists they go visit an Ostrich park as they are traveling through New Mexico. This movie was fun to watch as I know sibling rivalry all too well.

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Next up was The Flag, directed by John Duffy. A Vietnam veteran – Dave Alspach – sees a group of college students about to light the American flag on fire and he takes extra measures to stop it. It was nice to see an older veteran star in a film. The sense of patriotism came flooding through me as I watched the moving film. Dave Alspach said the movie was based on a true incident for him, but when he approached the flag offenders, they fled in real life.

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Beautiful Sunset directed by Karen Weza made me cry!I LOVED this movie!! It shows a couple pillow-talking with extreme close-ups to their faces so you can see their emotions. The husband tells his wife he loves her so much like a beautiful sunset. She suggests they go away from the weekend then suddenly bursts into tears and we see her now holding dog tags instead. The movie gave me chills and reached me deep inside. Dynamite. Weza shared she is an ex-wife of a marine and understands the emotions wives go through. She now lives in LA and directs, produces and acts. She likes to be an empowered woman.

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Scott Hansen directs Until It Hurts, which is a about retired Navy SEAL sniper Dave Hall and LA artist Ellwood Risk who created an artwork to commemorate the 79 Navy SEALS who have died since 9/11. Hall shot 79 times from the 911 yards on 9/11/2012 for all 79 SEALS. Hall’s layout of his shots was framed by front page news of 9/11. His purpose was to reclaim 9/11 instead of letting the terrorists define it for him.

It Hurts is a moving documentary that also lets the families of the fallen speak about their sons and fathers who died fighting for our country. I greatly enjoyed meeting Jake Healy who is featured in the film. His dad, a Navy SEAL, died during ‘OPERATION RED WING’ when his Chinook crashed in Afghanistan. Healy is beyond proud of his dad and his work in Until It Hurts. Healy heard about this project via Facebook. He contacted the director who had already completed the documentary, but asked Healy if he wanted to be in it too – so added him in. What a tribute to our Navy SEALS.

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After a 30 minute break, I watched my final block of films. First was Never Forgotten directed by Michael Shipman. It told the story of a young, 21 year-old Army Sergeant named Paul Maynard who fought in World War I. He wrote several letters to his family while the film explained what Paul was going through during the war. Tragically, he died in France just as the war was ending. His family waited at the train station for him in vain, not knowing he had just died. He rests in France near farmland, which represents the farmer Maynard was.

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The Haircut directed by Alexis Korycinsiki is a fictional rendition of a young gal attending West Point with the first class of women. The clothes and the cars from the 1970s were super cool.

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Thank You for Your Service, directed by Thomas Torrey, smartly shows the disconnect society had with Vietnam veterans and today’s active-duty military. It cleverly demonstrates the interaction between a Vietnam veteran and an active duty soldier and how they are treated at a diner. This movie made me tear-up.

Lastly, I saw The M.I.As on Tiger Mountain, directed by Norman Lloyd. It’s a true story of the rescue of American soldiers, surrounded by the North Vietnamese on Tiger Mountain, during the night. Lt. Mike Sprayberry led the daring rescue and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon.  What an honor to be in the Medal of Honor recipient’s presence. Many of the soldiers recounted their experiences in the documentary including the families of those Missing in Action. Sprayberry has gone back to Tiger Mountain to try to find those three soldiers missing in action and he plans to go back again soon.

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The GI Film Festival continues to hit it out of the ballpark. It is an incredible brainchild of Laura Law-Millett and Brandon Millett that captures the American spirit and keeps our military’s memories alive.

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GI Film Festival Opens Tonight and Runs Through May 24th at Angelika Film Center by Marlene Hall.