The business of Hollywood is an odd and hectic one for executives to occupy. They deal with multimillion-dollar projects, deadlines and larger-than-life personalities. So when a Hollywood executive found himself traveling to the DC area to speak at a small independent film festival, he may not have been overly enthused about the opportunity, as GI Film Festival founder Brandon Millett describes it. However, things quickly changed.
After speaking with wounded warriors one night during the festival, the Hollywood executive had a change of perspective. He called Millett and said how “consumed” he was after meeting those outstanding men and women, and wanted to find out more about how he could help.
That has been the main goal of the GI Film Festival, founded by Millett and his wife Laura Law-Millett in 2006, a veteran who left the military in 2008.
“Our mission is to preserve the stories of military veterans through film, television and live special events,” Millett says. “One of the objectives we hope to accomplish is to connect the 1 percent who serve with the 99 percent who do not.”
With the festival celebrating its 10th anniversary this Saturday, May 21 through Sunday, May 29, it is easy to see they have achieved what they originally set out to do.
The depiction of the military in film and television back in the mid-2000s was one of the inciting incidents for the couple to create the GI Film Festival, and the corresponding GI Film Group. Many of the military characters being portrayed onscreen did not represent Law-Millett and others she had served with.
“We decided to show the other side of the story,” she explains. “The stories of courage and sacrifice, and what the majority of the people with whom I served are like and the struggles they faced instead of what Hollywood was doing at the time.”
The original thought was to hopefully show a few films in a community rec center or a similar location. However, when word got around about what the pair was trying to do, a strong wave of support came in. Celebrities like Jeff Ross, R. Lee Ermey and especially Gary Sinise, who has been a major contributor to the festival over the years, helped build a strong foundation for the festival, which showed 28 films in its first year and took place at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.
“The festival took on a life of its own after that,” Millett says.
Bloomberg News has called it ‘Sundance for the Troops.’ And all the stops are being pulled out for this year’s festival. Kicking things off this Saturday, Gary Sinise will perform at the Howard Theater with the Lt. Dan Band.
A 30th anniversary celebration of Top Gun is taking place with the United States Navy Band playing prior to the screening as well as a jet flyover, followed by a Q&A with actor Val Kilmer. There will also be a special advanced screening of the new film X-Men: Apocalypse.
But all of the flair is just an added bonus to what really makes this festival special to the couple. Law-Millett remembers one year after a screening, a Vietnam veteran came up to them and revealed that watching a film during the festival was the first time he had cried in 20 years, because he finally felt that his story was properly told.
“That really took our breath away,” she says.
The couple will look to make that kind of connection again this year with the 78 films that will be screened throughout the festival that they say cover practically every branch of the military and all major conflicts, from the Civil War up to Iraq and Afghanistan.
While it would be easy enough to simply enjoy the success that the festival has had thus far, the pair isn’t interested in that. Later this year, in partnership with PBS, the festival will hit the road, hosting mini-festivals in more than 20 cities across the country. Other events are planned, like a GI Film Festival West and special screenings on military bases.
“We had a filmmaker a few years ago who said that every city needs to experience the GI Film Festival,” Millet says. “That really stuck with us, and it’s something we hope we can accomplish.”
The 2016 GI Film Festival will take place from May 21-29. Check www.gifilmfestival.comfor details.
Photo: Vithaya Phongsava