Established in 2015, the GI Film Festival San Diego showcases films by, for and about military service members and veterans. It also says it “aims to reveal the struggles, triumphs, and experiences of service members and veterans through compelling and authentic storytelling.”
The festival launches its Virtual Film Showcase this Thursday and Friday featuring six documentaries about military experiences.
Films presented in this year’s Virtual Showcase were curated by members of the festival’s advisory committee to ensure the festival provides an authentic view of the military experience. Keshia Javis-Jones, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, joined the committee this year.
“So as a veteran, I feel that the mission of the GI Film Festival is very important,” Javis-Jones said. “One, they are connecting the community supporters and those that don’t even know anything about the military to actual history from the words of those that were in the uniform. The most important part here, I believe, is that you understand history. And in these films, shorts, documentaries, you’re going to see firsthand what they’re going through and it definitely resonates with what we’re going through today as America being in COVID, the change that we are facing and just sharing that experience together, but virtually. So a lot of history is yet still untold, and I believe that this is one of the ways that the GI Film Festival is making such a huge difference in telling those untold stories. As a combat veteran myself, I know that not many people other than my immediate family know any stories that I connected with personally or hardships that I had while I was in uniform.”
This year’s lineup will have a focus on some of the voices that are heard from less often in the military: women in the Vietnam War and Black service members in World War II.
Women are represented in the film “The Donut Dollies.” During the Vietnam War, the Red Cross had a program that involved a small group of American women volunteers. Their mission was to be the girl next door or the shoulder to cry on for American troops in Vietnam. These women were referred to as the Donut Dollies. They were sent into a war zone with little training, sometimes found themselves in the line of fire, and met with negative reception when they returned home from an unpopular war.
“In Their Own Words” looks to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The film speaks with surviving members about their experiences from training to combat, and from fighting racism to finally being recognized for their service. The interviews capture great personal narratives and highlight a part of history that has too often been ignored.
At a time when we are very conscious of who tells a story, “In Their Own Words” was created by a couple white dudes, Bryan Williams and Denton Adkinson. Williams said it was almost divine intervention that led them to the project. His wife told him that she saw them making a documentary (they had previously done mostly music videos) so Williams said a prayer before eating his food at a diner and after he said, “Amen,” a Tuskegee Airmen walked into the restaurant.
Adkinson said from that moment more than a decade go “we said we’re not going to let this story die. And it was such an inspiration to us that that’s why we pushed for so long, because it’s a story that is about a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. So that was something that we feel that message needs to keep coming out.”
What stands out as I watched the film today from the point of view of the current unrest and calls for racial equality, is that the events are not that long ago. As we contemplate systemic racism, the film shows how some people in the 1930s and 1940s thought Black men were incapable of flying a plane.
One great moment the film highlights is when Eleanor Roosevelt unexpectedly asked to go up in a plane with one of the Black airmen.
“It was funny that the program was just getting started, but as soon as she got back on the ground, she wanted to go talk to the president. So now this program needs to happen,” Adkinson said. “So that was probably the push that was needed to get the ball rolling.”
“RESCUE MEN: The Story of the Pea Island Lifesavers” looks to the U.S. Life-Saving Service formed in 1871 and in particular to Station 17 located on the narrow Pea Island of North Carolina. Station 17 was led by former slave and Civil War veteran Richard Etheridge, the only Black man to lead a lifesaving crew. The film looks to the dangers that crew faced and their impressive record of rescues.
The festival states that it makes a “community effort to help bridge the military-civilian divide, each film selected tells a compelling and unique story that may challenge notions about what it means to serve and goes beyond one-dimensional depictions of veterans, service members, their caregivers, and families.”
To help achieve this part of its mission, the festival will hold a post-screening discussions after each film block where viewers can hear from filmmakers, subjects and local experts about topics raised in the films. This year those discussions will also be held online.
For full disclosure, the GI Film Festival San Diego is organized by KPBS and partners with the Film Consortium San Diego to present the Local Film Showcase.
“For six years the GI Film Festival San Diego has brought authentic military stories to the big screen,” said Nancy Worlie, associate general manager of content and communications, KPBS. “Not only do the films selected amplify the underrepresented voices of our active duty military, veterans, spouses, and caregivers, but also our local filmmakers who have an opportunity to showcase their work nationally. We’re excited to present our virtual showcase to provide a preview of what’s to come in spring 2021.”
Film lineup for the sixth annual GI Film Festival San Diego Virtual Showcase:
Thursday, Oct. 1
5 p.m.: “The Rifleman’s Violin” and “RESCUE MEN: The Story of the Pea Island Lifesavers”
7 p.m.: “No Greater Love”
Friday Oct. 2
5 p.m.: “She Wore Silver Wings” and “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen”
7 p.m.: “The Donut Dollies”
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