GI Film Festival: Cinematic salute to the troops

July 18, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley highlights the GI Film Fest (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Call it “Sundance for the Troops” or the “Full Metal Film Fest.”

But there’s only one G.I. Film Festival, which returns this week for its ninth year.

The event runs May 18-24 with the majority of events at the Angelika Film Center in Fairfax, Virginia.

Last year, the headlining film, “Fort Bliss,” brought Michelle Monaghan to the red carpet and launched director Claudia Myers as one of the Top 10 Filmmakers to Watch by Independent Magazine.

“That film has gone on to receive distribution, it’s available on Video On Demand, downloads, just a lot of great things have been happening with that film,” Festival Director Laura Law-Millett says. “So we’re excited to have been part of its launch.”

“That was actually the first film at the festival ever to receive a perfect score from our film critics and jury for a feature film,” Festival President Brandon Millett adds.

In past years, submissions were required to contain military characters. This year, the festival has expanded to include films from military filmmakers, even if their stories explore other topics.

“This opens us up to a whole new category of entertainment,” Brandon says. “We have everything from stop-action films, we have animated films, we have comedy, drama, we have thrillers, anything you can possibly imagine.”

It’s hard to tell exactly how many veterans go into filmmaking, but here’s a good gauge. Membership in the Veterans in Film & Television organization has recently grown to 2,000 members.

“There’s a growing group of military veterans wanting to get into the industry,” Brandon says. “We encourage that because it leads to more accurate portrayals of military characters.”

This year’s slate includes the North American premiere of “Kajaki,” a BAFTA-nominated flick about a group of British marines stranded on Kajaki Dam, which turns out to be a former Soviet minefield.

“It’s one of those films that you watch through your hands, through your fingers, but you’re really glad that you did,” Brandon says of the intensity.

If you like action films, check out “War Pigs,” starring Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke about a rag-tag unit of soldiers who go behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis during World War II.

If you love documentaries, check out “The Millionaires’ Unit,” about a group of Yale grads who learned to fly on their own and convinced the military to let them fly combat missions in World War I.

“A majority of our guests are veterans,” Laura says. “For many of them, they’ve never seen stories that actually reflect their actual service, and they get to say, ‘Wow, that’s what I did!’ … It’s a therapeutic experience and it’s an exciting experience to be able to see these great stories told on the big screen.”

Not only can you meet the veterans in attendance, you can also rub elbows with the filmmakers. Sixty-one of the 65 filmmakers will be in attendance, along with some big-name celebrities.

R. Lee Ermey, who played the legendary gunnery sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), will roll up to the red carpet in a World War II jeep on Saturday night. He’ll accept his award as the winner of the festival’s “Military Movie Character Madness” bracket back in March.

Other celebrities guests include Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump” (1994); Jamie Kaler, host of “America: Fact vs. Fiction” on the American Heroes Channel; Montel Williams, who will attend the “Kajaki” premiere on Friday; former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his daughter Linda Powell, star of “Chicago Fire” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

The latter Powell will host an interactive screening of the World War II classic “Casablanca” (1942). Guests are encouraged to dress in 1940s attire for a live tweeting contest. After the screening, get ready for some faux-gambling with “funny money” at the Rick’s Cafe after party. Say it with me now: “I’m shocked — shocked!” — that gambling is going on in here.”

“We’ll definitely have the celebrity sizzle factor,” Brandon says. “At the end of the day, always, it’s about our films though, and this is the most dynamic lineup we’ve ever showcased.”

Tickets cost $12 for individual screenings. Weekend passes cost $85. All-access passes cost $300.

“People who come to our events say that it’s life changing,” Brandon says. “There’s something that happens when you put awesome films on screen, you bring out celebrities, you have real heroes in the room, and then you throw a great party. There’s something about that combination that’s magical.”

Hear the full interview below:

July 18, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the founders of the GI Film Fest (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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