The term “film festival” often conjures images of artistic Avant-Garde films, groundbreaking documentaries, or acclaimed international films. Roughly everyone knows of Sundance, some might know of the Canes, but have you ever heard of the G.I. Film Festival?
The G.I. Film Festival presents films and events for, by, and about the military veterans. Established in 2007, the G.I. Film Fest Festival aims to reveal the struggles, triumphs, and experiences of service members and veterans through compelling and authentic storytelling. Documentaries, shorts, narratives, and family-friendly films are presented, highlighting stories of heroism, resilience, and honor.
The G.I. Film Festival is traditionally hosted in 2 cities, Washington DC and San Diego. On October 1st and 2nd saw the return of the San Diego festival, but a bit different. Everyone knows that COVID-19 has disrupted practically everything that was planned, but the staff behind the staff have created a plan to still have the fest this time online. The online fest will feature a smaller lineup of films but now for a wider audience.
For anyone that wants to learn more about the fest or how to submit a film for consideration, you can visit the festival’s website here.
The Rifleman’s Violin
Directed by Sam Ball
The Rifleman’s Violin is a short documentary (14 minutes) that recounts the tale of Stuart Canin who fought on the front lines of WW2 Germany all while carrying his violin with him. While his combat service may already distinguish himself from other musicians, it’s the fact that he had to perform in front of President Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin before they began negotiations for the post-war world.
The film is told through an interview with Canin. He retells his time as a rifleman in Belgium, with his violin case, and eventual transfer to a musical/entertainment that also consisted of Eugen List and Mickey Rooney. This unit traveled to different hospitals offering some morals to injured soldiers until they got the order that they are to perform in front of the big 3. As Canin relives the night, he also provides the musical score to the film.
The joy of attending a fest is the Q&A section. The films own Big 3; the director, Sam Ball, the star Stuart Canin, and the Executive Producer Abraham Sofaer did attend a virtual (Zoom) Q&A for the audience. It was fascinating to hear additional stories. Ball telling how he found the story of Stuart Canin. Sofaer also worked with the Hoover Institute and helped with the creation of the Potsdam Revisited Project. Part of the project consists of pictures that Canin took while he was in Berlin as well as a recording of a concert that Canin performed the exact line up he performed in front of the Big 3.
Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Lifesavers
Directed by Allan Smith
Have you ever heard of the U.S. Life Saving Service? Their mission was to assure the safe passage of Americans and International shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. For the all African American crew located at Station 17 on Pea Island, North Carolina their tales of heroism have gone forgotten until now.
The film takes time to establish the Life-Saving Service, which was the forerunner to the Coast Guard. It also looks at the checkered past that was plagued with cronyism, racism, and imcompitice. Then the film moves to the establishment of Station 17 and how the Station would become a legendary crew. It showcases the trials of the crew in Reconstruction-era North Carolina, the contextualizing of early segregation, and the telling of the rescue of the E.S. Newman in 1896. The film comes off as an
Like with Rifleman’s Violin there was a virtual Q&A this time with the writer David Wright. He talks about the finding of the near-forgotten story. He also tells about the struggle of finding sources that survived history.
No Greater Love
Directed by Justin Roberts
While many know the documentary Restrepo, I hazard that few know of No Greater Love. The 2 share remarkably similar stories. Both follow an Infantry unit in Afghanistan. Both speak of the highs and lows of the deployment. But what separates the two is who is behind the camera. Restrepo has Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 2 civilian cameramen, and storytellers who came to understand the modern warrior. No Greater Love is told through the unit’s Chaplain Captain Justin Roberts.
This film specifically follows Captain Roberts as he reconnects with men he deployed with, the men of the “No Slack” Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division. CPT Roberts acts as the narrator and interviewer of the film. He has noticed some problems within himself and seeks to answer these questions with these veterans. Because of his closeness with these men allows for a near unfiltered voice of the various soldiers. It’s an emotional film that will hit anyone that watches it. You see soldiers receive injuries that would leave them on death’s door, only to return to the battle and fight on. You see soldiers deal with loss on and off the battlefield. CPT Roberts also looks for answers after the deployment. Personally, I feel it’s CPT Roberts’s experience as a chaplain that allows these soldiers to really open up.
It’s an emotional film with a unique emic view, but it also allows for a civilian audience to try to understand what combat vets experienced. It feels that CPT Roberts is searching for optimism, and not just with himself but for every vet out there.
During the Q&A CPT Roberts was joined with Amber Robison, an OEF veteran, and advisor with the G.I.Film Festival. CPT Roberts’s big thing was to tackle the big idea of coming home. That even though veterans come home once they leave the service it’s not a switch that they can turn off.
In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen
Directed by Denton Adkinson and Bryan Williams
There is probably no aviation unit more iconic than the Tuskegee Airmen. The all African-American fighter unit that struggled to get their wings to become the angels for allied bombers. This unit has had a number of films dedicated to them, and two dramatic movies (The Tuskegee Airmen and Red Tails. In Their Own Words is a documentary that is not only about the famed unit but it is told by the very men that made the unit.
It starts with the 1925 publishing from the Army War College, stating that African American’s could not fly. Then moves to the interviews from the surviving members. Each explains the motivations behind why they wanted to fly and their struggles. The film then progresses into the unit’s war history. But once the war ends their battle was not over as they came back to a segregated America. Until the unit received true recognition in 2007. The film comes to an end with the legacy that these heroes want to leave.
The Directors, Bryan Willams and Denton Adkinson, and Paulette Mello of the San Diego Chapter of the Tuskegee Airman. Paulette says that the remaining Airmen are humbled by their legacy.
She Wore Silver Wings
Directed by Devin Scott
While many know of the WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), few know the stories of WAFS(Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service). For Devin Scott, he knew one of these as his Aunt. She grew up with dreams to take to the sky and she did achieve that dream in this short film.
The film is told with Devin Scott interviewing his aunt, Jean Landis, who was a member of WASP and how she accomplished her dream to fly. Scott tells the unit history, while also offering his opinion on the archival footage. When the film transitions to Landis being one of 1000 pilots of WASP and how she became part of a Pursuit Squadron. The film shows the highs and the lows, and what the women of the WASP had to deal with all the way to the unit’s sudden and quiet deactivation in 1944. And how WASP would receive the recognition they deserve until 2010.
Scott was at the virtual Q&A and told that Landis, who recently turned 102, is still lecturing on the history of the WASP to schools. He retells how Landis felt forgotten to history until 2010.
The Donut Dollies
Directed by Norm Anderson
When one thinks of the Vietnam War the word volunteer isn’t often associated. But for a selfless group within the Red Cross, their mission was just as critical as those that fought. These are the Donut Dollies. The Dollies were a group of nearly 700 young women, who were not apart of the military, that acted as therapist, confidants, comedians and one-women versions of the USO for the warfighters. This film seeks to ensure that their mission is not only remembered but also follows two of the Donut Dollies as they return to Vietnam nearly 50 years later.
The film follows Mary Bowe and Dorset Hoogland Anderson as they travel back to Vietnam, but it also has interviews from other Donut Dollies and Vietnam Veterans to establish a historical context. Many of the Dollies were just fresh out of college and looking to serve in ways that were not the usual roles. It’s not a typical documentary as the film is also intercut with clips of home movies that show how caring these women are. While it may sound confusing it works very well. You hear the history and how these women bonded in ways that mirrored service members. Even sharing the horrors of war.
As Mary and Dorset travel they run into other veterans that were in Vietnam. In these, in counters, you see an immediate relatability on their faces. During the travels, you see this acts as a therapy not just for the Americans but also for the Vietnamese. The film is wholesome and emotional as these women relive their experiences and come to terms with their role. But this might be because the filmmaker is Dorest’s son, but his voice in the film never messes with the tone. This was a truly fascinating story and an easy must-see.
In the Q&A featured Jim Gardner and Jess Hill who were the Producers, as well as Sharon Cummings and Sandi Rhoten who were Donut Dollies. Jim and Jess told the origin of the film came from the filmmaker just following his mom around with a camera to capture his mother’s stories. Jess also told the production experience of the trip to Vietnam. Sharon told the origin of the “Donut Dollies” came from WW2 when women volunteers with the Red Cross handed out donuts and coffee to service members. Sandi hopes that people can think of the other and be there for others is a part of the legacy. Sharon believes that the legacy is selflessness and that America will always those that are ready to help.
Closing of the G.I. Film Festival
I’ll be honest and say that this was my first film festival. While I wish I could have attended this fest in person I considerate an amazing experience to have watched these films and hear the stories. I won’t recommend any of these films an individual grad as they are all must-see and must be retold. These documentaries are artifacts for both veterans and civilians to learn from. I would recommend that any attend any future G.I. Film Festivals for themselves. San Diego has planned for the 2021 Festival to take place May 18-23.