GI Film Festival winners capture danger, intrigue, pain of armed conflict

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Film and military buffs viewed dozens of movies about military life and culture at the sixth annual GI Film Festival in Washington, D.C., which wrapped up May 20. A rundown of the critics’ favorites, and their trailers:

Best Narrative Feature: “Memorial Day,” directed by Sam Fischer

In this fictional narrative, Kyle is about to return to combat in Iraq, and he’s explaining to a doctor why he’s so compelled to collect souvenirs from the war. When he was a kid, Kyle explains, he approached his grandfather, Bud, with the contents of Bud’s footlocker, which was stuffed with mementos of World War II. Bud was reluctant to share his story, but struck a deal with his grandson: “Pick any three objects, and I’ll tell you the story behind each one.”

Fast forward to the present, when Kyle has returned from Iraq and is walking into a Minnesota forest, gun in hand, still wrestling with his experience at war.

Featuring Oscar nominee James Cromwell as Bud, “Memorial Day” is the story of a grandfather and grandson: Both saw war; both collect souvenirs from battle; both grapple with the burden of their memories.

Best Narrative Short: “8:46,” written and directed by Jennifer Gargano

“8:46” follows an ensemble of characters — firefighters, cops, parents, young people — leading up to the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001 and shows how they cope in the immediate aftermath. A portion of the profits from the film will go to Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health support for those affected by 9/11.

Best Short Short: “Jockstrap Raiders,” directed by Mark Nelson

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It’s the dark days of World War I, and the Kaiser is scratching at Britain’s door. The only ones who can save the day are a group of misfits from Leeds, England, whose cartoonish abnormalities barred them from military service. “Cartoonish” is the operative word; director Mark Nelson made this high-flying computer-animated cartoon over five years as part of his thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Best Documentary Short: “Survive. Recover, Live.” directed by Ivan Kander

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The film begins with a story about how director Kander thought he and his pal Rob Jones would go on making goofy, low-budget videos forever. “Times change,” Kander narrates.

Jones joined the Marine Corps and in July 2010, an IED blast in Afghanistan took his legs. The film follows Jones’ recovery, and he’s an inspiring and entertaining subject: When he first got his wheelchair, he promptly started doing tricks. And when President Obama came to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to give Jones a Purple Heart, Jones offered Obama a Mountain Dew and asked if he’d “do the Dew.”

Best International Film: “Bridges,” directed by Miguel Angelo Pate

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This film bills itself as a “living graphic novel.” Indeed, the film noir style combined with live action has a distinct comic book feel, reminiscent of 2005’s “Sin City.”

“Bridges” follows American WWII bomber pilot Saul Bridges, who, after getting shot down over Berlin, is taken in by a 16-year-old girl and her little brother. Bridges survives the war and returns to Berlin flying goods into the blockaded city as part of the 1948 Berlin Airlift. When dense fog forces his plane down, he finds himself back in Berlin, this time embroiled in a dangerous plot to sell goods from the airlift on the illegal market and to the Soviets.

Best Documentary Feature: “Lost Airmen of Buchenwald,” directed by Mike Dorsey

“Lost Airmen of Buchenwald” tells the harrowing story of 166 Allied airmen who were captured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. In interviews with survivors, the documentary follows them from their days hiding with the French Resistance to their struggle to survive Buchenwald.

Founders Choice Award: “The Red Machine,” written and directed by Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm

This heist caper is set in Washington, D.C., at the height of the Great Depression. A roguish young thief is forced to help an icy and mysterious Navy spy steal a high-tech, top-secret device that the Japanese military is using to encrypt its communications. During the mission, which is complicated by the spy’s dark past in Tokyo, the two discover that they are pawns in a larger, much more dangerous game.

“Here’s a film with an elegant simplicity,” Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Not a shot doesn’t do its work. It may remind you of a ’40s B crime movie, and I mean that as a compliment.”

Best Student Film: “Stateside,” directed by Jacob J. Tanenbaum

In this World War II movie, Rose has been taking care of the house for the past three years while Frank was off at war. During that time, their son died. When Frank finally returns after being injured, the death mars what should have been a happy homecoming. Frank and Rose must deal with the fact that they could never mourn the loss of their son together.

Military Channel Award: “The Borinqueneers,” produced, written and directed by Noemi Figueroa Soulet

This film about the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, the only all-Hispanic unit in U.S. Army history, has been making the rounds and winning awards at film festivals since 2008. The Borinqueneers — whose nickname comes from “Borinquen,” the word the native people gave Puerto Rico, meaning “land of the brave lord” — fought meritoriously in both World Wars and Korea.

Using archival footage and interviews, the film explores the history of the unit, including a mass court-martial of almost 100 soldiers during the Korean War for their refusal to return to battle after the regimental leadership was relieved in the wake of a bloody rout by Chinese forces a few weeks earlier.

Andrew Matarrese is a writer for Medill News Service.

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