The GI Film Festival: ‘Real Heroes in the Room’

LifeZette has the latest on the movies honoring our veterans: 'It was a PR crisis begging to be addressed'

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 19 May 2017 at 9:03 AM

The GI Film Festival was founded in 2006 with one goal: to create a “true community where passionate filmmakers, our veterans and those who support them can gather for a few magical days to educate, heal and preserve the legacies of our veterans,” according to its website.

The festival screens short and feature-length movies made by veterans and about important veteran-related issues. It’s a program that not only gives veterans a form of expression, but also acts as a connector between civilians and the men and women in uniform, who are too often ignored.

Related: Vets Group Fights for the Facts in Hollywood

This year’s GI Film Festival (GIFF) takes place from May 24 to 28 in Washington, D.C. — and cofounder and chairman Brandon L. Millet gave some time to LifeZette to explain the importance of the festival, its history and its future.

Question: Tell us about your personal experience starting the GI Film Festival and how far it’s come over the years.
Answer
: One morning over coffee 12 years ago, my wife and I had a conversation about how there were so many movies coming out of Hollywood attacking military service members. Laura [Law-Millett, his wife] graduated from West Point and had served in the Army and Army Reserves. I had spent my career in public relations, and this seemed like a PR crisis begging to be addressed.

Related: Billy Ray Cyrus Owes His Career to a Vietnam Veteran

Recognizing the power of film and television to influence public opinion, we decided to launch an independent film festival focusing on movies that show the courage, honor and respect of our service members. We didn’t know quite what to expect in terms of the response. We wondered if we’d be sitting in a high school gym somewhere screening films to friends and family. But from day one, the festival took off. When you show movies that honor the military, bring real heroes into the room, and add a little Hollywood sizzle, magic just seems to happen. We see it every year.

Q: You say the results have been dramatic over the past 10 years. Tell us more.
A:  When we started GIFF, virtually all of the films emerging from the studio system were denigrating American service members (“Redacted,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Stop-Loss”). Today most of the studios show the courage and integrity of service members (“Hacksaw Ridge,” “American Sniper,” “Lone Survivor”).

When we started GIFF, there was no philanthropic movement in Hollywood for veterans. Today there are several influential groups, including Got Your 6, the SAG-AFTRA Veterans Committee, and Veterans in Film and Television, which was co-founded by a GIFF filmmaker.

When we started GIFF, there was no independent voice for veterans in the film community. Today GIFF has helped over 400 films honoring the troops make it into the marketplace, including many by military veteran filmmakers.

At first we had to push to get meetings with studio executives. Today the studios come to GIFF to promote their pro-military content, including Disney Studios, NBC Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, HBO, and more. There has been a sea change in the level of support for veterans in the film community over the last decade. A number of wonderful people and organizations have contributed to this positive development. But GIFF was certainly at the tip of the spear.

Q: What are your personal goals for this festival? Where do you want to see it go in the next few years?
A: Our primary goal every single year is to provide an incredible and unforgettable entertainment experience for festival attendees. We want people buzzing from their festival experience for weeks and months after they attend.

Actor Michelle Monaghan ("Source Code," "Patriots Day," "Pixels") premiered a film with us a few years ago called "Fort Bliss." She said her experience at the GI Film Fest "was the single most profound experience of my entire career." That's the reaction we want. And more often than not, thanks to the talents of our filmmakers, the special guests we bring, and the great parties we host, that's precisely the reaction we get.

Related: 'Man Down' Shines Strong Light on Veterans and PTSD

Then there's the public education component. Our other primary goal is to make sure our films are seen by as many people as possible even beyond GIFF. We want the American people to fully understand the unique challenges faced by our military families, so we can properly help them transition home. We do everything in our power to help these films find success in the marketplace.

One of our filmmakers, Gary Mortensen, wrote a very nice letter a few years ago, saying, "Every city in America should experience what you've built." That message really resonated with us. Several years ago, we added a San Diego festival hosted each October in partnership with KPBS. We've hosted military base tours. And we've produced television programs featuring our content. What drives us now is the idea of bringing the GI Film Festival to as many places as possible, whether online or in theaters.

"What drives us is the idea of bringing the GI Film Festival to as many places as possible."

Q: Are there particular movies you are excited to screen this year?
A:
Every year we're asked to name our favorite films. And we always say that's like asking parents to name their favorite child. They are all genius in their own special way! However, that said, here are a few we like to highlight.

There's "American Veteran," the most intimate and inspirational portrayal of a paralyzed service member we have ever seen. Not only does this documentary film show the courage of a soldier, paralyzed from the neck down, but it also highlights the remarkable strength of his caregiver and wife.

There's "The Colonel," a narrative short film that tells the true story of a dedicated Marine, Hap Tasker, discharged from the service for medical reasons. Crestfallen, Col. Tasker finds new ways to serve his country by teaching the time-honored values of strength and determination to a suspect group of private school kids on the football field. The film stars renowned actor Kevin Durand.

"People can pitch their best ideas to a panel of industry judges."

We'll also host an advanced screening of the Warner Bros. film "Wonder Woman" for the troops, the world premiere of the season premiere of the AMC Revolutionary War television series "TURN," with cast, and a sneak peek at the upcoming 18-hour documentary series, "The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. GIFF will also host a PitchFest, where people can pitch their best ideas to a panel of industry judges.

And people definitely do not want to miss the festivals "Cinematic Salute to the Troops," our first-ever live variety show, featuring comedy, music, short films, celebrity appearances, and more.

Hosted by actor, comic and Navy veteran Jamie Kaler, the salute will also welcome singer Ayla Brown ("American Idol"), and actors Tom Berenger ("Platoon," "Dogs of War"), and Judd Nelson ("Breakfast Club," "New Jack City").

Related: Wrestler John Cena Talks Love of America, the Military and WWE

All ticket buyers will also be eligible to win two tickets to the New York City premiere of the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan-directed film from Warner Bros., called "Dunkirk," including travel and lodging.

This lineup, start to finish, is the best we've ever showcased. We cover every genre, from animated comedy to thrillers to romance. We cover conflicts from the American Revolution — through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have foreign films from Israel, Brazil, Australia, the UK, and Canada. There's something for everyone.

As we like to say, if you stay with us from beginning to end, you will experience every conceivable human emotion.

Tickets to the film festival can be purchased here.

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