- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

When they started the GI Film Festival in 2007, Laura Law-Millett and Brandon Millett screened 20 films from 85 submissions, roping in family members and friends and calling in every favor imaginable to make it happen.

For the ninth iteration of the annual festival, which runs through Sunday at Angelika Film Center & Cafe at Mosaic in Fairfax, Virginia, Mr. Millet and Ms. Law-Millet have 10 team leaders and 100 volunteers to lend a hand.

“Our parents no longer have to hand out fliers on the Mall,” Mr. Millett said.

“Unless they want to,” Ms. Law-Millett added.

Mr. Millett and Ms. Law-Millett, who are married with a child, founded the festival based on what they saw as a lack of films that positively portrayed America’s armed forces personnel. Although “Coming Home,” “Taxi Driver” and other films about complicated veterans have admirers, the couple said they were seeking out works that showed not only the dark side of military service but also the heroism, selflessness and honor of those who volunteer.

“I had been in PR for 15 years. I knew an image problem when I saw one,” Mr. Millett said. “We love films [and] we figured what a powerful agent of public education that films can be, so we decided to start a film festival.”

For Ms. Law-Millett, who specialized in military intelligence in the Army, offering artistic productions that accurately portrayed the types of people who served with her during her 14 years was a paramount concern.

“So many people have said, ‘Why did it take so long to have [a film festival]?’” she said.

For most of the veterans who attend, she said, the films offer a method of healing and an opportunity to see some of their own stories on screen.

“For them, it’s cathartic,” she said. “It’s, ‘Wow, this movie gets me. This event gets me.’”

She said the veterans get a chance to feel like stars by walking the red carpet for premieres and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities who make a point to attend the event.

Mr. Millett and Ms. Law-Millett screen hundreds of films to winnow down the submissions into a viable program. They say with pride that this year’s schedule offers films from nearly all genres covering almost every major U.S. conflict from the Civil War to the ongoing situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the Hollywood heavy-hitters who will attend is Gary Sinise, famous for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the legless Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump.”

“He’s been a big part of the GI Film Festival story,” Mr. Millett said of Mr. Sinise.

During the festival’s first year, Mr. Sinise stepped off a plane from Iraq, where he had been entertaining troops with his Lt. Dan Band, to receive the GI Spirit Award from the festival founders.

“His foundation is a generous supporter of what we do, and that is to preserve the stories of veterans through film and television,” Mr. Millett said. “And who better than Lt. Dan?”

Although the festival founders do their best to show active-duty soldiers and veterans in a positive light, they acknowledge that the wounds of battle are as often psychological as they are physical. Those returning home from combat often have trouble adjusting to civilian life and putting the front behind them, leading to troubles at home with friends and family. Alcoholism and substance abuse are rampant; suicide remains a scourge.

“We don’t shy away from any of the horrors of war or sacrifices that our service people face,” Ms. Law-Millett said. “And we do have a lot of films that deal with PTSD, coming home and [re-]integration.”

She said the films she and her husband choose portray not only veterans’ problems, but also solutions — with endings showing characters seeking and receiving help rather than resorting to self-harm.

“It’s a very tricky issue because, on the one hand, you can’t consider the courage of the people who serve without putting it in the context of sacrifice,” Mr. Millett said. “Sacrifice can mean loss of life and limb. But on the other hand, you don’t want to portray all GIs as victims and insane, because that’s not accurate either.”

Mr. Millett and Ms. Law-Millett have reached out several times to the Department of Veterans Affairs about partnership opportunities but have been rebuffed. Ms. Law-Millett said she hopes that with new leadership from Secretary Robert McDonald, the troubled agency may recover from its recent scandals.

One of the founders’ most exciting finds for the 2015 festival is a film from British director Paul Katis called “Kajaki,” a true-life story that follows a group of British soldiers trapped in a ditch in Afghanistan that they discover — too late, as it turns out — is riddled with anti-personnel mines. The film is as intense a 90 minutes as is possible at the cinema.

“It’s the kind of film you watch through your fingers, but at the end you’re glad you watched it,” Mr. Millett said.

“Kajaki” will screen Friday evening at the Angelika. TV personality Montel Williams, himself a Navy veteran, will be on hand, as will Mr. Katis and several of the actual soldiers portrayed in the film.

On the Saturday evening schedule is the world premiere of “War Pigs,” starring Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Luke Goss, an ensemble World War II behind-enemy-lines thriller, for which actor and TV personality R. Lee Ermey will be on hand. Mr. Ermey, a Marine who served in Vietnam, is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of the sadistic drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.

Asked whether she is able to separate her military knowledge from her experiences as a filmgoer, Ms. Law-Millett said she is able to “compartmentalize” her viewing experience so long as the factual errors of the military movies aren’t glaring. Such gaffes, she said, include female soldiers having hair down their backs or a private telling off a general without consequences.

“But for the most part, I’m able to just watch it, enjoy the ride and not get so caught up in the fine details,” she said. “If [Mr. Millett and I] walk away with a greater appreciation of the military, then I don’t think about it. If the only flaw of the movie is that the camouflage pattern is from 1993 and the film is supposed to take place in 2007, sometimes I’ll let that slide.”

The full schedule and tickets are available at GIFilmFestival.com. Tweet to GI Film Festival @gifilm or via #GIFF15.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide