- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2014

Boys become Civil War soldiers. A widow hits the road to remember her husband. A single mother struggles to make the transition from the battlefield to the home front.

The stories showcased at the eighth annual GI Film Festival vary as widely as the experiences of the military men and women who inspired them.

This year’s festival runs Monday through Sunday, with many of the films airing at the Old Town Theater in Old Town Alexandria.

“I think people are always surprised by the diversity of the films we offer,” said festival co-founder Brandon Millett. “We do have those popcorn entertainment films we’ll showcase, but we also have the dramas, we also have the documentaries, that talk about real life stories.”

The festival kicks off with “Field of Lost Shoes.” Mr. Millett described the movie as an “epic Civil War story about Virginia Military Institute cadets who are forced into battle before their time.”

“They display tremendous courage and grit,” he said. “It’s very much a Virginia story, but it’s just such a beautifully crafted, moving film. We’re really starting strong.”

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Actor David Arquette is scheduled to attend the festival as a special guest.

The highlights of this year’s festival includes Friday’s “Salute to Hollywood Patriots,” which premieres a group of short films and honors the late actor James Gandolfini. Guests include actor Gary Sinise, and Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff.

The Best of the Festival Awards are set for Saturday, along with a viewing of “Lone Survivor” and an appearance by Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL whose true story is told in the film.

“What’s different this year is we’ve added a lot of Hollywood sizzle to the event,” Mr. Millett said. “Not only do we have some great celebrity supporters, we also have Hollywood studios participating in a major way. It speaks to the growing commitment of Hollywood to supporting our military and expressing that support through participation in the GI Film Festival.”

Mr. Millett said he and his wife, Laura Law-Millet, a West Point graduate and Army Reserves officer, got the idea for the festival after a conversation the two had one Saturday morning.

“She had seen a film that had GIs portrayed as drug dealers, and she knew that wasn’t consistent. I had just read an article in the Los Angeles Times that said we need to start blaming the men and women pulling the triggers,” Mr. Millett said. “That’s a dangerous, slippery slope. That, combined with the films coming out of Hollywood [at the time], we decided that we had to do something.”

The first GI Film Festival was held in 2007. Mr. Millett said about 78 films were submitted. This year, about 230 projects were sent in, along with roughly 40 screenplays for a new section of competition.

“One of our goals at the film festival is to get films into the marketplace that help foster appreciation and respect [for GIs],” he said. “We want to try to encourage these projects and also encourage the production of films.”

The selection process and judging are similar to other film festivals.

“We look at the production quality, sound, writing, editing, acting, directing,” Mr. Millett said. “One of the thematic criteria is our GIs are portrayed with respect. Other than that, anything goes in terms of the story and genre of film.”

But the definition of “respect” can be different for each audience member, Mr. Millett said, which means not every film will be a feel-good, hero epic.

“We tackle every tough subject,” he said. “We tackle post traumatic stress disorder, joblessness, unemployment, alcohol and drug dependency, sexual abuse and harassment issues. We always look for films that provide a solution or some hope in terms of dealing with those issues. There’s no issue that we haven’t covered regarding the military experience.

“The way we explain it to people, if at the end of a film, you feel positive about the contributions of military service people, that type of film would be eligible to screen at the film festival,” he said. “But sometimes it’s not always easy to tell until the last credit of the film has rolled.”

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