Festival brings attention to veterans’ stories

Still photo from “Ultimate Sacrifices: CPT Jennifer Moreno,” which pays homage to the San Diego native.

The GI Film Festival San Diego is set to open on Monday, May 15 at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival is now, once again, a total in-person event, with 31 films in six nights to honor military and veterans around the world. All film screenings will culminate with uniquely invigorating panel discussions where attendees will have the opportunity to hear from filmmakers, film subjects, actors, and subject-matter experts. The festival week will conclude on Saturday, May 20 with the anticipated awards celebration with returning host, stand-up comedian and army combat veteran Thom Tran. Themes in this year’s festival include military sexual trauma, suicide awareness, post-traumatic stress, invisible wounds, and transitioning from military to civilian life. The festival also brings true stories about San Diego heroes, World War II aviators, and service dogs to the big screen. Unique military experiences from the Ukrainian War, Civil War, as well as a story about a Black Vietnam War veteran’s perspective, will also be shared. Audiences can also watch fictionalized stories that place veterans, service members, and current events at the center of the plotline, including exciting espionage adventures, a romantic western, and an apocalyptic zombie invasion. Established in 2015, the GI Film Festival San Diego is a multi-day showcase of films for, by, and about military and veteran experiences. Films featured in the festival reveal the struggles, triumphs, and experiences of service members and veterans. The festival is organized by KPBS in partnership with the Film Consortium San Diego. The GI Film Festival San Diego is a member of the San Diego Veterans Coalition and the San Diego Military Family Collaborative. GI Film Festival San Diego Committee member Keshia Javis-Jones said the committee is happy to be back fully in person. She said ticket prices are different for opening night, and with the rest of the festival, there are several packages to see the rest of the films, or to watch them independently. “I think no matter what a viewer is looking to see or learn at the GI Film Festival, I would say they can pick any night and it will be relatable to them whether they are a San Diego native just wanting to learn more about the military,” she said. “Or even if they are military veterans themselves and want to see films of different eras. I love seeing films of different eras. I am a veteran myself and each year I find a different story captivating.” Javis-Jones said overall, the festival is dedicated in presenting the gap of the story of military service in uniform to the civilian divide in all aspects of life. She said the committee is all-volunteer, which means everyone’s heart is into sharing these stories, with several military organizations participating in viewings, and awards. “We are a very inclusive group, meaning that we want to share the stories of everyone, no matter their background, where they came from,” she said. “We want to ensure everyone’s story is told. It is not only enjoyable for the committee, but for the entire community. It is authentic. It shows military experience, but more important, it engages the audience with military life, culture, hardships, and anything divisive they may overcome.” Javis-Jones said the films can be San Diego-related, national, or international, and it wants to attract attendees from all interests. “We have a great lineup of documentaries, full-lengths, and shorts this year,” she said. “Every night you will have a short in the series of showings. I am very excited for the public to see this year’s selection of films. Many of them, I have military ties to.” Kicking off opening night will present three films that have a San Diego tie-in. Starting with the San Diego premiere of “The Making of TOPGUN 2,” directed by award-winning veteran Mark Vizcarra, who has been honored with several GI Film Festival San Diego awards, including Best Narrative Short (2017) and Best Film Made by A Veteran or Servicemember (2017) for his film “Once Guilty, Now Innocent, Still Dead,” and Best Film Made By or Starring Veterans or Military (2018) for “Thud Pilots.” This year, his 30-minute documentary gives audience members a behindthe- scenes look at the U.S. Navy’s support of the making of the 2022 action drama “Top Gun: Maverick.” Vizcarra said this story needed to be told as people see this billion dollar blockbuster film, “Top Gun Maverick” and do not realize how much the U.S. Navy was part of its making. “There are military officers that without them this million dollar project would never have been completed,” he said. “When you think about military and Hollywood, sometimes they do not see the same way, or they want different things. The U.S. Navy and especially tactical naval aviation. They were a little concerned about was if it was going to reflect the U.S. Navy and its mission, especially Top Gun, which is one of its prized training. It separates all the air forces in the world with naval aviation always taking the lead in winning wars and defeating the enemy.” Vizcarra said if the Navy was going to sign on with Paramount in the making of this film it had to portray what Top Gun and the U.S. Navy is all about. He said the Navy started with the film early on in 2017. “The first script they got, they were not going to do,” he said. “It was not a proper reflection of what Top Gun is all about and what naval aviation is all about. So, the two starting officers contacted the commanding officer of Top Gun and told them to come to San Diego and bring your top subject matter experts, and we will develop a story, a screenplay that will be acceptable by the U.S. Navy.” Vizcarra said the 30-minute story tells the behind the scenes story that many people do not know. “They had to actually guide Paramount, the producers, and Tom Cruise with this is what you can do, and this is what you can’t do.” Vizcarra said the documentary is made up of nine interviews with people involved in the making of Top Gun Maverick. Others he brought in are people who actually flew the F- 14s and their perspective. He said the studio still “pushed the envelope a lot,” but for the most part they did a really good job in terms of portraying naval aviation correctly, and that this film does not look as fake as the original film. “They actually put the actors in the aircraft this time,” he said. “When you see them, they are in that aircraft. They are throwing up, scared to death. Some of the flying scenes are historical that you have never seen or never will unless they make another film.” Making its U.S. premiere, “Time for Change: The Kathy Bruyere Story” details retired U.S. Navy Captain Kathy Bruyere’s determination to create more equitable opportunities for women serving in the military in the late 1970s. Bruyere, who lived and worked in San Diego, challenged centuries of Navy tradition and made history by fighting for the rights of female service members to serve at sea. A trailblazer, Bruyere shattered glass ceilings and inspired countless military careers here in San Diego and around the country. In 1976, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine along with 11 other women as “Women of the Year.” Bruyere passed away in San Diego in September 2020 at age 76 and is interred at Miramar National Cemetery. Directly after will be the screening of “Ultimate Sacrifices: CPT Jennifer Moreno,” which pays homage to the life and career of U.S. Army Captain Jennifer Moreno. Moreno grew up in San Diego and was a leader in San Diego High School’s JROTC program. A core member of the Cultural Support Team in Afghanistan, Moreno and an elite female squad engaged in dangerous combat operations while providing allied forces a means to communicate with the local women. The documentary features interviews with Moreno’s close friends and family left behind after she made the ultimate sacrifice. Moreno is interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma. To further honor her service and sacrifice, the San Diego VA Medical Center in La Jolla renamed their building in December 2022 to the Jennifer Moreno Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Daniel Bernardi, the director for “Time for Change: the Kathy Bruyere Story” and “Ultimate Sacrifices: CPT Jennifer Moreno” said “Time for Change: the Kathy Bruyere Story” is a short film about a Navy pioneer, a woman who ended up joining suit against the Department of Defense to allow women to serve on ships. And was successful. “To do that, she leveraged her experience of being on the cover of Time Magazine,” he said. “She really understood what she had being on that cover, and her leadership required that she fight for women going forward. She is why women serve on ships and serve in combat.” Bernardi said he actually interviewed her by accident at a cemetery. A pilot in Vietnam he was buried there, and someone told him he should interview her. He said the interview was put on a backburner for a bit, then unfortunately she died. “We went back and said now, we must move this fast,” he said. “People do not even know this story. So, we interviewed her son, put together that film and we are very proud of it. It tells Kathy’s story, but it really tells the story about women in the military.” Bernardi said the Moreno film is interesting that they are both playing at the same time because she served in combat. “Moreno was a captain on Coronado island. Jenny grew up in San Diego. Her mother entered the U.S. illegally raising four kids in a garage around Chicano Park. Jenny went to San Diego High School. Jenny and her older brother and sister took off there taking part in the Jr. ROTC program, worked hard. Jenny was a superstar. Very sweet. Very kind, but sort of a badass.” Bernardi said Bruyere graduated college, joined the military, insisted on attending jump school and fought to get on a cultural support team. “That is really the first woman in combat in Afghanistan to support special forces on the ground,” he said. “Jenny was pretty amazing.” Bernardi said that he found this story on his last deployment to Gitmo. “It resonated with me,” he said. “It took us a while to get people to be in it because it is still very painful for the family. She was a pretty remarkable woman. I do not like the way the Army treated her after her death. I was angry. I thought I had a film that could upend some of the rhetoric around immigration and service of Chicanos and Latinos. And one that could talk about the way women are treated. From a documentary film perspective and a veteran, I am pissed off and I am jumping in. But in filming we realized we had a different film on our hands. It was about grief, the pain, her potential, her life. I feel like if we made a film like we intended to, we would not have been able to shine a light on this beautiful life.” Opening Night cost $25 for general admission and $20 for military, veterans or KPBS members. All film descriptions and dates, and tickets can be purchased online now at GIFilmFestivalSD. org.


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