- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

The District plays host to a number of film festivals every year, but the GI Film Festival just might be the most unique.

“There are 2,000 film festivals out there that are willing to screen films that denigrate American warriors,” says Brandon Millett, the festival’s founder and CEO. “Why not have one that’s specifically dedicated to honoring American warriors?”

Now in its third year, the GI Film Festival has grown steadily. The first year saw 85 submissions, the second saw 135 — and this year, more than 200 films were submitted for consideration. Between the festival’s kickoff Wednesday and its closing May 17, 48 movies will be screened, an increase of almost 50 percent over the previous year.

The festival has garnered more attention, and the quality of submissions has gone up, causing Hollywood to take notice: Three pictures in the festival’s first two years were picked up for theatrical distribution.

“In year one, there was a film called ‘Operation Homecoming,’ we did the Washington, D.C., premiere of that film,” Mr. Millett recalls. “It was picked up not only for theatrical distribution, but it was also nominated for an Academy Award in the best feature documentary category.”

Last year, two more films were sold — “Brothers at War” and “The Last 600 Meters.” The latter, which screened as a work in progress, is scheduled to run theatrically and air on PBS in 2010.

Filmmaker Jake Rademacher, the director of “Brothers at War,” fondly remembers the reception his film received at the 2008 festival. “It won best documentary at the GI Film Festival, where it also got a standing ovation from a lot of the military present,” he says.

“Our audience consists of active duty military, veterans, military families, military enthusiasts,” Mr. Millett says. However, he stresses that the average filmgoer and filmmaker will also find much to love.

“We also have a pretty good contingent of filmmakers that come to the festival as well,” he says. “We’ve brought in some great Hollywood directors and industry types for our panels.”

Some famous faces have also been quite supportive of the festival. For those who follow his work, it will come as no surprise that Oscar-nominated actor Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”) has taken a special interest.

“Gary Sinise has been a huge supporter of the festival from year one,” Mr. Millett says of the “CSI: NY” star. “Everybody knows how much Gary does for the troops. He came year one fresh off a trip from Iraq to a reception that we were holding at 10 o’clock at night, and he stayed until he shook every last hand.”

Other celebrity supporters include Oscar winner Robert Duvall; actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican; and members of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Although typically dominated by smaller, independent fare looking for distribution — or simply an audience — the festival this year features a pair of bigger budget major studio productions, Tom Cruise’s “Valkyrie” and Kevin Bacon’s “Taking Chance.”

The “Valkyrie” screening is a special event, sponsored jointly with USO Metro DC, and is open to a group of injured veterans from Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“That screening on Thursday night, we’re screening it for wounded warriors,” Mr. Millett says. “Tom Cruise plays a disabled veteran in the film, so we thought there was definitely some relevance for the audience.”

Like the special red carpet screening for “Taking Chance” on May 15, the “Valkyrie” screening is open only to invited guests and those who purchase the $250 all access pass. Yet the vast majority of the films are open to the general public, and tickets cost $10 each.

“The best thing about our festival is the diversity of films,” says Mr. Millett, pointing to the documentary films, combat films and narrative features that populate the schedule.

He points to features like “Triangle of Death,” a movie shot by a Marine Corps corporal about the Sunni Triangle region in Iraq. “Then you go to a film like ‘SEAL Team VI,’ which is a pure popcorn action film,” Mr. Millett says.

It’s not all action and adventure, though.

“Jerabek” tells the story of a family who lost a son in Iraq after Sept. 11 inspired him to join the Marine Corps.

For a full schedule, as well as information on purchasing tickets, go to the festival’s Web site, www.gifilmfestival.com.

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