GI Film Festival Brings Stories of America’s Military to Life Through Film

GI Film Festival San Diego Brings Stories of America’s Military to Life Through Film

Organizers of the GI Film Festival San Diego are finalizing the selection of films featured at the upcoming five-day celebration of films for, about, and by service men and women. Thirteen films are now on the schedule, with more to be added in the coming weeks.

“The stories featured in the films span several genres and depict various points in U.S. military history and experience,” says Tom Karlo, general manager, KPBS, which is presenting the festival, now in its second year. One such film is the 90-minute documentary “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.” It was a 10-year journey to produce the film, which filmmakers Sara Vladic and Melanie Capacia Johnson describe as a “passion project.” The film opens the GI Film Festival San Diego with a screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

At the age of 13, Vladic heard about the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis while watching a documentary about WWII that touched upon the sinking. At the time, Vladic thought, “That can’t be real,” because it was so incredible.

From an early age, Vladic knew she wanted to make movies, but she thought someone would make a film about the USS Indianapolis by the time she was old enough to. When she graduated from Pepperdine University, no one had made a film on the story yet. So Vladic set her mind to do so.

She contacted the USS Indianapolis Survivors’ Organization to see if she could come and talk to the members. They took her in, inviting her to reunions. The first reunion she attended was in 2001 in Indianapolis. During one of these reunions, the survivors told Vladic they wanted her to tell their story. They had learned to trust her and work began.

In 2005, Vladic began conducting interviews with the survivors with the intention to write a screenplay. At this time, there were about 100 survivors. She filmed the interviews, to be more accurate in her research and for archival purposes before the survivors passed away. She completed a full length feature screenplay, but felt it just wasn’t capturing the story authentically and to the depth that was needed to tell it accurately. It was then decided to use the footage of the interviews for the film – first-hand accounts by the survivors themselves, and in their own words. When she began collecting interviews in 2005, there were about 100 survivors; in 2016 there are now only 23 and range in age from 89 to 94. The filmmakers expedited the production process so they could show the survivors and their families a finished product, which they did at the recent annual “Survivors’ Reunion” in mid-July 2016.

According to Vladic, going to the 2016 reunion was like going home to see family. It’s always a treasured event, and even more so this year because they were able to show the finished film to the survivors, rescuers, and Indy family members in an actual movie theater. “The reception was overwhelmingly fantastic,” said Vladic. “There’s nothing like hearing the words from the survivors that ‘we got it right’ and they’re ‘so proud of us for telling their true story.’”

Also at the reunion, Vladic was inducted as an “Honorary Survivor,” a title that only a select few hold in the organization. “’USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” is a driving force for us to tell their story accurately,” says Johnson. “We feel it is our responsibility to let current generations know what is arguably the greatest generation who sacrificed for us to have the freedoms we have. Their story needs to be preserved and celebrated.”

This commitment to preservation and celebration of the military experience is one of the key missions of the GI Film Festival San Diego. This year, several of the selections feature epic stories that few people today know about, yet many will have a chance to see on the big screen during the five-day festival. Another such film is “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a film by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, III. This film documents the true story of church minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha, who left their children behind in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to join a life-threatening mission in Europe and help save Jews and other refugees fleeing the Nazis during World War II. Their selfless endeavor spanning over the course of two years is told through their journal writings in the film.
Newly added titles to the GI Film Festival San Diego line-up also include:

• “Escape from Firebase Kate” – During the implementation of Nixon’s plan to end the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, 26 U.S. troops are caught in the transition. Unsupported by the South Vietnamese, the men are abandoned on a tiny outpost where they are surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops. After surviving a brutal three-day siege, they lead a daring middle-of-the-night escape through the jungle and evade enemy troops. “Escape from Firebase Kate” is their story, told by the men who survived in their own words.

• “Frogman” – Patrick only knew his father through the life stories he would tell – stories of covert operations as a frogman and Navy SEAL in Vietnam. With each story told, Patrick felt he gained not only a piece of his father but a piece of history. Frogman delves into the sacrifices and burdens of a family where keeping secrets became part of the job, and explores just how much we can know someone through the stories we inherit.

• “Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan” – During World War II, just off Chicago’s shoreline, the U.S. Navy trained over 15,000 carrier pilots on two makeshift “flattops,” both former, coal-fired, side wheel passenger steamers. Not every pilot landed successfully on the pitching decks of the USS Wolverine and USS Sable; many aircrafts went to the lake bottom. This is the story of the recovery of those rare warbirds and the ingenious training program that changed the course of the war in the Pacific.

• “Operation Allie” – Anthony Marquez, a former Marine and military dog handler, has returned from Afghanistan. He lost 17 friends in the war and has been suffering from the effects of PTSD. When he finds out the dog he went through the war with is being retired from the Marine Corps, he sets out to adopt her. This is the story of his journey to be reunited with his best friend, Allie, and the comfort they can provide for each other.

• “Tom’s War” –Tom Geerdes served as an Army medic in the 11th Armored Calvary in Vietnam and Cambodia. Like many veterans, he returned home a changed man. At StoryCorps, Tom shared his long journey toward healing with his daughter, Hannah Campbell. This animated short features the audio from their recording.

• “The Last Time I Heard True Silence” – Upon returning from Iraq, Noah struggles to transition back into civilian life. His attempts to reintegrate are repeatedly thwarted by problems he never faced before. After losing more friends to suicide than war, he finds himself hitting rock bottom so he starts running and he never stops. Now a father and husband, Noah enters a 50-mile wilderness race, pushing his mind and his body to their limits.

• “The Unimaginable Journey of Peter Ertel” – Peter Ertel was considered “like family” by his Jewish employers by the end of World War II, but he had a remarkable past as a German soldier for five years at the beginning of the war. In the first-person narrative documentary “The Unimaginable Journey of Peter Ertel,” the man speaks of his experience in a hatred, destruction-driven time. The film features rare archival footage – previously unreleased– as the audience learns from this former agent for the U.S. State Department.

• “The Year of the Tiger” – During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy has to decide whether to put millions of Americans at risk and assist millions of people trapped 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.

The second annual GI Film Festival San Diego is presented by KPBS in partnership with the GI Film Group and Film Consortium San Diego. The events schedule includes screenings at multiple venues, panel discussions and Q&A sessions with filmmakers, a Family Movie Night and a Local Film Showcase, featuring the works of San Diego area filmmakers, locations, and actors. The weekend culminates in a Closing Celebration and Awards Ceremony on Sept. 18, where filmmakers featured in the Local Film Showcase will be in contention for receiving awards in multiple categories. An Audience Choice Award will also be announced, giving audiences an opportunity to vote throughout the festival for their favorite film.

Many of the events, including the awards ceremony, will be open to the public with special discounted opportunities for active duty military personnel and veterans.

General admission tickets will be available online on Monday, Aug. 8. All access passes for entry into festival events and screenings are available now for $85 each on the GI Film Festival San Diego website at

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