The fifth iteration of the GI Film Festival San Diego, which is taking place from Sept. 24-29, does not have a stated theme outside the festival’s purpose: showcasing films created by, for and about military service members and veterans. Still, the selected feature films, documentaries and shorts have a connected through-line.
“A lot of the films, and specifically ‘Homemade’ and ‘Take Me Home Huey,’ have to do with healing from war,” said Lisa Marcolongo, a member of the Advisory Committee for the GI Film Festival San Diego. “We're still at war and our active duty and our veterans and their families are still healing from war.”
“Homemade” is a documentary film following a combat veteran and his family for six years as he struggles to reintegrate to civilian life. Its world premiere is at the Museum of Photographic Arts on Sept. 25. “Take Me Home Huey” opens the film fest on Sept. 24 with its portrayal of a San Diego-based artist’s project to restore a Huey helicopter from the Vietnam War and then reunite it with its former crew.
“‘Homemade’ is about Afghanistan. ‘Take Me Home Huey’ is about Vietnam. These are two different generations. These are two different conflicts and wars. They're all healing and finding ways to do that, whether it's through sculpture and art forms, whether it's through physical activity and things like that,” Marcolongo explained. “It's something that resonates with multiple generations and we need to be there to help and support them. San Diego has a great collaborative and coalition of service providers and community members that are here just to support them during that journey.”
She sees the divide between civilian and military life as one of the barriers making it difficult for veterans to return to their communities. Marcolongo believes the film fest is an important place for veterans to meet people in the San Diego area willing to support them since bases are largely inaccessible to civilians.
“I understand that there are security protocols and safety is number one, but at the same time, that kind of cut us off from creating more links and connections between the military and the community. That's just one more reason why the GI Film Festival is so important. It's not just about watching those films that you're going to see in that theater; you're going to be able to meet active duty and veterans at the same time you're viewing some of those stories and journeys that they wanted to highlight,” she said.
Marcolongo is passionate about supporting veterans because of her husband’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when he returned from combat in 2007. She needed the help and support of San Diegans as the family learned to manage his condition.
“Our family is thriving because of those resources that reached out to us and helped us,” she said.
Of the films she viewed while making selections for this year’s festival, Marcolongo particularly resonated with “Homemade,” as it showed another family dealing with invisible wounds from war.
For the filmmakers, giving viewers a relatable perspective onscreen was an intentional choice.
“We really wanted [the film] to feel like you were on the inside and that you were a part of Adam and Victoria and their family's life,” said director Danielle Bernstein.
The film itself is grounded in empathy, with the directors behind the cameras describing their subjects as close friends. Each time they visited Adam Sorenson as he navigated life after war, they worried first about making sure the family was going to make it as Sorenson battled addiction and health issues, and second about filming.
“We're a couple and we were documenting a couple. I really became friends with Victoria throughout the film,” Bernstein said. She believes since her and co-director Jason Maris did the project together, they were able to connect in a different way than if Maris executed the filming alone. What resulted was an intimate portrayal of the struggles to readjust to civilian life after a traumatic brain injury.
The Marine Corps is currently in discussions with them to use the film as a possible training tool. Bernstein believes civilian culture can learn something from the military as well and needs to better help people find purpose in their lives.
“I'm a huge advocate for how do we make transition more streamlined and more positive and easier to integrate to civilian culture, and also how do civilians start to look at ourselves and how we participate in a culture that doesn't give us daily feeling of purpose and meaning,” she said.
According to Maris, doctors who have attended private screenings of the film also learned how to better understand their patients.
“Doctors who work with military said, ‘Wow, this is incredibly insightful because it is all the people that we’ve treated, but it's what happened before they walk through our door.’ [They have] never even gotten to see that part of the story. [They have] just [seen them] after they'd come for treatment,” Maris explained.
Maris said, “It's been very effective in igniting the kind of dialogue that we want to have around these issues.”
To continue that discussion, they will be a part of a panel, alongside stars Adam and Victoria, after the screening of “Homemade” at the festival.
The local artist featured in the 2017 Emmy-award winning documentary “Take Me Home Huey” will also be speaking at the event. His mixed-media transformation of the Huey was the original premise of the film, but it became about helping Vietnam veterans who visited the 47-foot-long sculpture heal.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it is estimated that approximately 7.3 million Americans who served during the Vietnam War from 1964 and 1975 are alive today. However, many Vietnam War-era veterans do not share their stories or experiences, and are affected by PTSD.
“In this case, the art became a catalyst for conversation. It kickstarted conversation and allowed these veterans to open up and talk like they've never talked before,” Maloney said.
Maloney decided to embark on the project after he turned another helicopter into a sculpture. He wanted to do the same with a Huey to thank veterans who never got properly welcomed home during the Vietnam War.
“The first thing that turned me onto thinking about this project was the fact that I learned that there was a 50th commemoration of the Vietnam War,” he said. “When I thought about the Vietnam War, I thought, wouldn't it be ideal if I could get an old scrapped Huey helicopter and transform that to be a piece of art to thank those that never got a welcome home.”
He wanted the art to engage all senses, which is why he originally contacted the filmmakers to have a documentary accompany the transformation. The project soon went viral, with senators and other lawmakers hailing the work and a tour of the transformed helicopter traveling across the U.S. It currently resides in Palm Springs.
“I've always said this is the proudest thing I've done — the whole project. It's been incredible and it's taken off organically. It's grown by leaps and bounds. When I envisioned the project, I had no [idea] the reach that it would have,” Maloney said.
A line from the resulting film has stuck with GI Film Fest organizer Marcolongo.
“It said, ‘As I walked through life, there's a pebble in my shoe. What has helped me the most is helping a fellow veteran,’” she said. “I think that resonates with both of those films as they both wanted to help other veterans and themselves through this healing process.”
The 34 films in this year’s film fest will be shown over six days, primarily at the Museum of Photographic Arts and UltraStar Cenmas at Hazard Center. Tickets and the full schedule are available at gifilmfestivalsd.org.
—Kendra Sitton is a contributing editor and can be reached at [email protected]