The 2021 GI Film Festival San Diego kicked off Tuesday with its largest lineup of films since the local festival was established in 2015. Originally a sister festival to the GI Film Festival held in Washington, DC, since 2006, the San Diego-based event expanded the celebration of military and veteran stories to the West Coast.
Brandon Millett and Laura Law-Millett — founders of the GI Film Festival — have since dissolved the original GI Film Group, making the San Diego event produced by KPBS the only national film festival of its kind. The awards competition, judging, and in-person screenings are now to be conducted entirely in California. With San Diego boasting one of the largest military populations in the US, the move made sense.
The pandemic threw a wrench into plans for last year’s festival, causing it to be postponed for months before eventually being held virtually in October. Last year’s festival featured only one new film and relied on celebrating past entries. The “Sundance for the Troops” has now officially moved to May, the same time of year its predecessor was held in DC. In stark contrast to 2020’s event, the festival is hosting 38 films this year, all of which can be viewed virtually.
Here are six promising films that have us excited.
Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses
Liberation Heroes stands as a warning for what happens when evil goes unchecked. The filmmakers interview some of the last remaining World War II veterans who participated in the liberation of Nazi concentration and death camps across Europe. Director Vanessa Roth mixes stories of Nazi Germany with those of active hate groups, creating a grim reminder of the potential for human depravity when hate is allowed to spread through indifference. Liberation Heroes is nominated for best documentary short, one of 12 award categories. A panel of 26 community leaders who share a passion for movies and the military will vote on the awards. Winners will be announced May 22, the next-to-last day of the festival.
The Khe Sanh Peace Garden
The Siege of Khe Sanh was a defining battle of the Vietnam War. US Marines were under attack for nearly six months, enduring constant indirect fire and the looming threat of massive ground attacks. By the time American forces withdrew from the valley, they had suffered an estimated 1,000 casualties.
The Khe Sahn Peace Garden follows one veteran of the battle as he tries to make peace with his past and his former enemies by planting a garden on the battlefield. The film, directed by Tinh Mahoney, promises to be one of the more uplifting and hopeful stories of the festival.
The 11th Order
Joshua DeFour’s 25-minute film tells the heart-wrenching story of Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, two Marines who saved the lives of 150 others in Iraq. Both Marines were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross after standing their ground against a suicide bomber hauling 2,000 pounds of deadly explosives. Their actions were immortalized in a speech by Lt. Gen. John Kelly, and the film splices together re-creations of that speech and the Marines’ actions from that fateful day in Ramadi to moving effect. DeFour is also a Marine, and the film is nominated for best film made by or starring military or veterans in the local film showcase.
The Invisible Project
Directed by Navy veteran Pacifica Sauer, The Invisible Project highlights ways female veterans are often unfairly overlooked. The documentary follows four female veterans as they challenge current perceptions.
“We’re the most visible service member and the most invisible veteran,” one veteran says in the trailer, summarizing the film’s motivation.
The Invisible Project is nominated for best film made by veterans or military.
Walking Point follows World War II Marine veteran Pvt. John Markle and his military working dog, Duke. The pair fight across the Pacific, demonstrating their commitment to the Corps’ motto, Semper Fidelis (always faithful). The film highlights the special bond between a handler and man’s best friend, and director RJ Nevens Jr. explores that partnership on the big screen.
The Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II is often overshadowed by the larger Japanese clashes with the United States and China. Even lesser known are the contributions Singaporean troops made during the war.
Forgotten Heroes tells the stories of four Singaporeans who served from the beaches of Normandy to the high seas of the Atlantic, from the air war over China to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Director Tom St. John Gray combines interviews with incredible animation to create a beautiful film that honors these overlooked WWII warriors. Forgotten Heroes is nominated for best international film.