WASHINGTON — Since 2006, it’s garnered a reputation as “Sundance for the Troops,” but even that’s an understatement. It’s now an all-out D.C. tradition.
The 11th annual G.I. Film Festival returns May 24-28, highlighting movies about troops or created by veterans with screenings at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater and other events at venues across town.
“It’s been a great, wild ride over the last 10 years,” co-founder and President Brandon Millett told WTOP. “We’re heading into year 11. The films have never been better. Start to finish, this is the best lineup we’ve featured. … Over the last 10 years, we’ve earned a reputation, so not only are we getting all of the phenomenal independent films every year about the military, but we now also get some studio films too, so we’re able to add a little Hollywood sizzle to the event as well. It’s a great mix.”
That celebrity sizzle started Wednesday with a Congressional Reception at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill featuring Tom Berenger, who won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination as Sgt. Barnes in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986). WTOP playfully asked what every movie fan has wondered: How dare he leave Willem Dafoe to die with arms outstretched toward the heavens!
“It depends on whose point of view you’re looking at it,” Berenger joked with WTOP. “I’ve found that the vets were not so judgmental about me. … I’m glad you brought up ‘Adagio of Strings,’ because it’s a classical piece written in 1924 and Oliver grabbed it and used it. I’ll hear it every once in a while and it just makes you want to cry when you’re by yourself driving down the highway or something like that.”
Speaking of which, Berenger and his wife will mount their Harley Street Glides on Monday for a once-in-a-lifetime motorcycle ride with Rolling Thunder for the group’s 30th anniversary on Memorial Day.
“It’s a bucket wish,” Berenger said. “I talked to a marine general friend of mine who said, ‘You’re gonna love that. You look back behind you as far as you can see, same as ahead, half a million bikes maybe. … My wife and I were going to ride in the parade with the vets; we thought we’d at least do that once in our life. It just happened to turn out that this [G.I. Film Festival] was happening at the same time.”
From “The Big Chill” (1983) to “Major League” (1989) to “Gettysburg” (1993), Berenger is prolific.
“One of my favorite all-time actors,” Millett said. “He has a big heart for the troops, but he’s also a military history buff, so he’s really into seeing the film content. That always excites us, not only when a celebrity comes because they want to be a part of it, but they actually want to watch the films.”
Those films kick off Thursday with “Operation Route 66” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater.
“This is a great film,” Millett said. “It’s about a father-son team who take their bikes out on the road. They want to learn more about the troops. They realize that as civilians, they really don’t know a lot about the challenges facing military families, so they take off on this road trip down Route 66 on their bikes, along the way meeting all of these veterans. It’s a really heartwarming film, beautifully done.”
It continues later that afternoon with “The 2 Sides Project” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater.
“It’s a great documentary, a phenomenal story,” Millet said. “This is about U.S. citizens who lost their fathers during the Vietnam War and decide to embark on a trip over to Vietnam, not only to get some closure and see where their fathers lost their lives, but also meeting with Vietnamese families who lost their fathers. … Some of the folks from that film from Vietnam will be with us at the screening.”
Thursday evening wraps at the Canadian Embassy with “Warriors Around the World,” featuring four international films — “The Last Ring Home,” “Medic,” “The Space,” and “Who Sank Your Ships” — not to mention America’s offering to the group: the Season 4 premiere of AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”
“This is one of my favorite events,” Millet said. “We show films from all around the world. We’re going to be showing films from Israel, Canada, the U.K. and [America’s] ‘Turn,’ the Revolutionary War spy show on AMC; we’re going to be doing the series premiere that night at the Canadian Embassy.”
Friday kicks off with a shorts block called “Veterans and the Arts” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. These films include “No Place to Fall,” “Deep Playa Sunrise,” “Child’s Play,” “Insecurity,” “Vets Helping Vets,” “Table 51,” “Escape,” “Christmas Bonus,” “Freedom,” “Ten Thousand Miles” and “Bonus Time.”
“What I love about this block is we have some films by military filmmakers,” Millett said. “For the first time last year, we started to include films by military veterans, even if the [plot] subject isn’t a military subject. We’ll have some of those films in this particular block. It’s really highlighting the role military veterans play in the arts community, and the role the arts community plays in helping veterans heal.”
Friday afternoon brings a second block of shorts called “Triumph” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, including a pair of films called “At Ease” and “American Veteran.”
“‘Triumph’ has one of my favorite movies in the festival [‘American Veteran’], about a soldier who was paralyzed from the neck down. It is a very intimate film about his experience, his recovery, how he learned to overcome his difficulties and live a very inspired life. It’s a love story too, because his caretaker becomes his wife and it’s about her strength and her resilience as well.”
Friday evening brings a third block of shorts called “Healing Divisions” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, including “Dawn” and “High Low Forty.”
“Healing Divisions is a really interesting block,” Millett said. “[‘High Low Forty’] is about two brothers, and they’re veterans, and it’s about family and healing. They have to go make a trip to see their father who’s on his deathbed, so it’s about some of the family issues that take place when veterans return home. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it is so well done, so well acted and very funny too.”
Friday wraps with “Warriors Appreciation Night,” featuring a series of short films and an advanced screening of the superhero blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” This is “invitation only” for the veterans.
“We invite the troops, welcoming some from Walter Reed, and we invite them out for a fun night at the festival,” Millett said. “Usually, this is a popcorn film — yes, popcorn is served — and this time, we’re getting an advanced screening of the Warner Bros. film ‘Wonder Woman.’ Even before it hits theaters, it’s going to be at the G.I. Film Festival, screening for the troops. … The leading lady [Gal Gadot] is herself a veteran of the Israeli armed forces, so that’s kind of an interesting little side note.”
Saturday kicks off with another block of shorts called “Greatest Generation” all about World War II. These films include “Glider,” “Happy,” “Bud’s Odyssey” and “Miro” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater.
“Gotta hit the ‘Greatest Generation,'” Millett said. “We’ve got four great short films about World War II, three of them are outstanding documentaries, those heroic stories and incredible demonstrations of courage on the battlefield. Then, there’s a very interesting film called ‘Miro,’ which is our narrative short film that takes place in Australia, so that’s something a little different, a little different flavor.”
Saturday afternoon brings another block of shorts called “Women Warriors” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. These films include “Reunion,” “This is Me,” “Call Me Ma’am” and “After Fire.”
“Every year, there’s a theme that emerges organically from the film content,” Millett said. “We have a great block of films on women warriors. Anchoring the block is ‘After Fire,’ all about what women warriors have to face, the challenges not only on the battlefield but sometimes within their own unit, and how they overcome those challenges to accomplish these great successes after returning home.”
Saturday evening brings another block of shorts called “Returning Home” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. These films include “Resurface,” “A War Within,” “Comedy Bootcamp” and “The Ravens.”
“These films really embody what the festival is all about, because we’re a festival that likes to search for hope and inspiration — even in difficult topics,” Millett said. “One of those films in this block is called ‘Comedy Bootcamp,’ a really interesting film about veterans who come home and get into the world of stand-up comedy … and how that helps them to heal from their wartime experiences.”
Saturday wraps at Howard Theatre with a “Cinematic Salute to the Troops,” a variety show hosted by Navy vet comedian Jamie Kaler, who will chat with Berenger and Judd Nelson (“The Breakfast Club”).
“It came to me because I hosted this show on the American Heroes Channel [called] ‘America: Fact vs. Fiction;’ they had a deal with the G.I. Film Festival,” Kaler told WTOP. “It was just this magical kismet! As soon as I got there and started to see all of these films about military stories and told by military members, the camaraderie just came welling back. So I’ve made it on my schedule every year. That’s like the first thing I book every year: ‘I’m going back Memorial Day weekend to do the G.I. Film Fest!”
One lucky attendee will also win two tickets to the upcoming New York City premiere of Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated new war flick “Dunkirk” later this summer, including lodging and travel.
There will also be screenings of three short films: “The Jockstrap Raiders,” an animated comedy directed by an army veteran; “Places Like This,” and inspirational documentary about climbing a mountain to deal with PTSD; and “All American,” a documentary about a humble World War II vet.
“One of my favorite films in the festival is ‘The Jockstrap Raiders,'” Millet said. “This is a film directed by an army veteran named Mark Nelson. It’s an animated comedy that takes place during World War I in England, and it is so hysterically funny that people are going to be rolling in their seats.”
Sunday kicks off with a block of shorts called “Defying the Odds” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. These inspirational films include “The Bravest, The Boldest,” “We Can Do It” and “Switchblade.”
“There’s a few films in this block that I Iove,” Millett said. “[‘Switchblade’] is a very well put-together documentary from a Brazilian filmmaker about troops in Brazil who overcome racism and produce one of the greatest victories in World War II. Then there’s [‘We Can Do It’] about Rosie the Riveters in World War II, all those young women who changed history by supporting the troops back home.”
Sunday continues with another block of shorts called “Honor & Sacrifice” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. These powerful films include “Reinforcements,” “The Colonel,” “Doc” and “Stealing Valor.”
“[‘The Colonel’] is a true-to-life story but in narrative form, about a marine colonel who’s discharged due to medical issues,” Millett said. “He has to overcome his disappointment and learn how to serve in another way. It stars actor Kevin Durand, who’s famous for the show ‘Vikings.’ He was also in ‘I Am Number Four.’ We also have a couple films about service animals. We’ll have service animals on hand.”
Sunday afternoon brings the shorts block “Beyond Service” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater with “Welcome Home,” “Devil Dogs,” “The Pacific Soldier” and “Gary Sinise: Always Do a Little More.”
“Gary’s been so much a part of the narrative of the G.I. Film Festival over 10 years, so we have a film about him,” Millett said. “It’s about the genesis of his support of the troops. A lot of people know Lt. Dan, but the genesis of this goes all the way back to the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, so we learn a lot about the history of Gary Sinise, his acting career and also his love of the troops.”
The “Beyond Service” block also features the timely documentary “The Vietnam Wall Guy,” telling the story of Vietnam vet Jan Scruggs, who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall back in 1979. Scruggs will also host 300,000 Rolling Thunder bikers at the Vietnam Wall on Memorial Day.
“When I met Jan, he’s like, “I went to this movie in 1978 with my wife called ‘The Deer Hunter,’ and when I came out, I had to do this [wall],” filmmaker Steven C. Barber told WTOP. “He is indicative of the power that is film. … Had he not gone to ‘The Deer Hunter’ that day, he would have never made the wall. So, [director] Michael Cimino is really the catalyst for the wall. That’s the power of film.”
Sunday evening brings the final shorts block of “Remembrance” at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, including “Charlie & Sam,” “Ghostly Assemblage,” “The 30th of May” and “The Liberation of Kuwait.”
“The film that anchors this block is called ‘The Liberation of Kuwait,’ the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War,” Millett said. “We’ve reviewed over 3,000 military movies, and this is the first film that we’ve seen about the great military victory in Kuwait, so it’s a rare gem. We hope people will come see that.”
The entire festival wraps Sunday night with the Best of the Fest Awards at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, featuring an awards ceremony and screenings of both “The Rifleman’s Violin” and “55 Days.”
“Our awards are so cool: bulletproof chest plates from a company called Highwire,” Millett said. “Not only are we going to have the award ceremony, we’re also getting an exclusive sneak peek of ‘The Vietnam War,’ the new PBS documentary series by Ken Burns. … People are just chomping at the bit to see this film, so we’re going to get a nice look at it on Sunday night of the festival, closing it out.”
From the famous faces to the indie filmmakers, the G.I. Film Festival leaves a lasting annual mark.
“Michelle Monaghan did a premiere called ‘Fort Bliss’ at our festival a few years ago and after the screening, she told an audience that the G.I. Film Festival was the single-most profound experience of her entire career. Those are strong words, and that’s the reaction we look for every year. The G.I. Film Festival cannot be described, it has to be experienced. There’s something magical that happens when you bring together great films with real heroes, add a little celebrity sizzle. It’s a phenomenal time.”
Click here for more details. Hear our full chats with Tom Berenger, Jamie Kaler and Brandon Millett below: