Emily S. Whitten: The G.I. Film Festival and The Ghost Army
Around here, we often talk about superheroes. Today, however, I want to talk about real heroes. The GI Film Festival, a non-profit educational organization “dedicated to sharing the military experience in and out of the arena of war” took place in D.C. on May 6 – 12, and I attended one of the events.
The Festival, which “presents films…that honor the heroic stories of the American Armed Forces and the worldwide struggle for freedom and liberty,” gave me a chance to experience a collection of short films from Canada, the U.K., Germany, Denmark, Australia, and the U.S. at the “Celebrating the International Warrior Spirit” screening. It was an amazing (and sobering) experience, and one that served as a reminder that, for every superhero we read about or flock to see on the big screen, there are millions of real unsung heroes out there who (putting aside whether we agree with why they are fighting or not) put their lives on the line for civilians every day.
Every film in the collection I viewed, which you can read about here under May 8, was worthy of being there. The four that had the most impact for me, however, were those which dealt with the aftermath of being in combat – with PTSD, and with the attempts to return to “normal” life after being a soldier and after seeing terrible things or losing others to death. It’s a topic that’s at least acknowledged in modern times, but one that is still not fully understood by those who haven’t actually experienced it. However, film as a medium can be particularly well-suited to drawing in viewers and causing them to identify with a character’s experiences. The films that examined this subject, Gefallen; M.I.L.O. – Goodbye 10; The Sound of Willie Nelson’s Guitar; and Fallout, open a window into the minds of a few of those who have returned from combat, and the importance of that to our cultural understanding cannot be understated. Every one of us, if we are not in the military, knows a friend or a family member who is or has been; and understanding just a tiny bit of what might be going on inside their minds when we get them back from the horror-show that is war can help us know how to be more understanding and supportive of them.
One of the films, Fallout by Peter Carruthers, did a particularly excellent job of showing the experiences of a “normal” day through the eyes of a British Army veteran (and you can watch a short trailer for it here). Literally “seeing” how terrifying or confusing walking down a perfectly ordinary city street can be for someone with PTSD, or the way in which a veteran can be trying so hard to reacclimate to his family and former life, and still fail, was both wrenching and enlightening.
The other film that had the greatest impact for me was actually a music video, Goodbye 10, by Danish rapper and soldier M.I.L.O.. Being a rapper and a soldier who’s seen combat is a pretty rare combination as far as I know, and M.I.L.O. has used his unique mixture of military experience and musical talent to produce Danish rap songs and music videos that are not only quality work, but also art with an important message. Goodbye 10, which you can watch with English subtitles here, gives M.I.L.O.’s perspective on returning to civilian life from war in Afghanistan in 2010, and manages to encompass many important aspects of a veteran’s post-war experience and outlook in just four minutes of music. It is also the follow-up to the award-winning music video Goodbye 09, which told the story of M.I.L.O going from civilian life in Denmark to the war in Afghanistan. Both videos are excellent and well worth a watch.
Moving from the wars of the present into the past, although I was unable to fit any other GI Film Festival events into my schedule this year, I happily did still get to view a documentary that was featured at the Festival and that I have been looking forward to for literally years now, since it also had a screening at The National Press Club which I was able to attend. That documentary is The Ghost Army, a WWII film by best-selling author and award-winning documentary producer Rick Beyer.
The Ghost Army tells the extraordinary story of one of the most unique military units of WWII – a U.S. tactical deception unit, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which was responsible for staging more than twenty battlefield deceptions, beginning in Normandy and ending along the Rhine River, and using everything from rubber tanks and sound effects to carefully crafted fake radio transmissions to dupe Hitler’s army. The Ghost Army consisted of 1,100 men, but using deception, was able to impersonate other U.S. Army units and appear to consist of up to forty thousand men. The unit, which had a high percentage of artists and other creative people within its ranks, is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives with its deceptions, and to have been instrumental in several of the European theatre’s Allied victories. Amazingly, the story of the Ghost Army was not declassified until 1996.
I’ve been fascinated with the story of the Ghost Army ever since I first read about it several years ago, and have been looking forward to Rick’s documentary since the moment I learned it was in the works. With excellent narration and storytelling, archival footage and photographs, interviews with Ghost Army veterans and military and WWII experts, and images of some of the many works of art that Ghost Army veterans sketched or painted during the war, The Ghost Army documentary was a real treat to experience, and I highly recommend it. It was also great to meet and hear from Ghost Army veteran Jack Masey, who was present at the screening and shared some of his wartime experiences in person after the film.
You can see Jack Masey and other veterans in the excellent trailer for the documentary here, and best of all, the documentary is premiering tonight on PBS, so you can watch the whole thing on TV! (And if you miss it, you can also watch it on the PBS website once it has premiered.)
So check out The Ghost Army tonight on PBS; and until next time, Servo Lectio!
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold
WEDNESDAY EVENING: Mindy Newell (what?)