By Ken Williams | Contributing editor
GI Film Festival returns for a second year
Compelling stories about the lives of American troops from World War II to modern times are brought to life in movies, documentaries and shorts showing this month at the GI Film Festival San Diego.
Now in its second year, the annual festival returns Sept. 14-18 with screenings in Balboa Park, Mission Valley and Coronado.
Opening the festival will be the West Coast premiere of “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy,” local director Sara Vladic’s compelling documentary that features historical footage and exclusive first-person accounts from some of the 107 survivors of the devastating torpedo attack on the heavy cruiser during WWII.
Vladic, co-producer Melanie Capacia Johnson and some of the survivors will attend the screening at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and participate in the Q&A session and reception that follows. An encore screening will be at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley at Hazard Center.
Another noteworthy documentary, “American Umpire,” directed by local filmmaker James Shelley, asks a crucial question: Should the U.S. military remain the world’s policeman? The film will be shown at 4 p.m. Sept. 17 at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, as part of the “Facing Crisis” film block.
A third local filmmaker, Pat Clark, will show his documentary, “A Return to the End,” about a small group of U.S. Marines who return to Vietnam on the 40th anniversary of that country’s reunification to honor the last two Marines to die during the final evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The documentary is part of the “Local Film Showcase,” beginning at 1 p.m. Sept. 18 at the UltraStar.
Vladic and Shelly and Clark discussed their work with San Diego Uptown News and Mission Valley News.
‘USS Indianapolis: The Legacy’
The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was the flagship of the Fifth Fleet, carried a Navy admiral onboard and had a crew of more than 1,000. Late during WWII, the ship was sent on a top-secret mission from San Francisco to Guam, carrying, unknown to the crew, one of the atomic bombs that would soon be detonated over Japan. Not long after unloading the mystery cargo, the USS Indianapolis was sunk around midnight by six torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine commanded by Capt. Mochitsura Hashimoto.
The attack killed 1,196 people, and 317 sailors and officers tried to survive in shark-infested waters for five days until they were miraculously rescued by a passing pilot who didn’t even know the ship had sunk.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is not widely known, and Vladic explains why.
“I believe the primary reason is that many of those involved didn’t talk about it for decades after the war, and some not even until recently,” she said. “That, along with the fact that the sinking was announced on the same day as the end of the war and overshadowed, really kept it out of the public eye.”
Vladic, a full-time filmmaker and writer who lives in San Marcos, said it took 10 years to make the documentary.
“Interviewing over 100 people takes time, but not only that, this film was entirely self-funded — so I’m sure you can imagine how much work and resources that takes to complete something of this magnitude,” she said.
“Both Melanie, my producing partner, and I worked really hard and called in a lot of favors from work friends to help bring this film to life. It’s also part of a bigger-picture multimedia project that we have in development surrounding the USS Indianapolis story, and attention has been divided among those projects in equal measure.”
Vladic describes the movie’s genesis.
“I have always been interested in history, and the story of the USS Indianapolis was one story in particular that drew me in from an early age,” she said. “From the first time I heard about it when I was about 13 years old, I thought that it would make an incredible movie. Years later, after graduating college, I decided to find out if there were still any living survivors and I found Paul Murphy, the chairman of the [USS Indianapolis] Survivors Organization. He invited me to their reunion in 2001, and from there, I got to know these men personally, and they really became like family. They asked me to be the one to tell their story, and I was not going to let them down.”
Like other survivors of horrific military tragedies, the men of the USS Indianapolis largely kept silent for many years, not sharing the horrors of war and keeping their life-and-death struggles to themselves. Vladic said she is honored they trusted her to tell their stories.
“The events that transpired affected each of the survivors differently, but it is without doubt that most all of them carried — and still carry — the story with them throughout their lives,” she said. “Some were destroyed by the experience, while others found a way to better themselves because of what they lived through during those days in the water.
“Without question, sharing their stories, and especially being able to get together at reunions and talk to their fellow crew members helped them heal throughout the years,” Vladic continued. “More than anything, I would say that just spending time with the men and building a friendship with them first, allowed me the opportunity to interview them beyond what others have done in the past. The men have always come first for me, when telling this story, and I think they really understood that and trusted me when we sat down in front of the camera.”
Vladic hopes audience members come away with a deeper appreciation of those men and women who have served our country.
“‘USS Indianapolis: The Legacy’ is not just a story about shark attacks and survival in the open sea. It’s the story of President Roosevelt’s Ship of State and Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Flagship — the ship that led the largest and most powerful fleet in history, even to this day,” she said.
“Beyond that, it’s important to educate current and future generations about the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom. The best way to comprehend the events of war is to hear first-hand accounts from those who lived through them. And last, but certainly not least, I hope people understand the importance of never giving up, no matter what the situation.”
The film’s director, James Shelley, who is pursuing his master of fine arts at San Diego State University, said he has always been interested in U.S. foreign policy.
“After reading Elizabeth Cobb’s book, ‘American Umpire,’ I realized that there was an important story to tell about how and why the U.S. became the world’s policeman,” Shelley said. “It occurred to me that the U.S. often gets into more trouble when it tries to impose some type of order to a military conflict overseas.
“For example, Bin Laden’s No. 1 reason for launching an attack on 9/11 was to get U.S. bases out of Saudi Arabia. Those bases were there at the request of the Saudis. If we hadn’t had those bases, there might have never been an attack on the U.S. Foreign military intervention is a very complicated and dangerous strategy for the U.S.”
Shelley’s documentary makes an excellent historical point that the so-called “Washington’s rule” — named after our first president — called for the U.S. to be neutral in conflicts that did not involve our country. The Washington doctrine held forth until President Harry Truman changed U.S. policy after WWII, embracing the idea that the American military would become the “world’s policeman.” But as Americans grow weary of seeing U.S. troops dying or being gravely wounded in foreign conflicts, public opinion appears to be changing and the issue has even surfaced in the 2016 presidential race. Shelley sees a generational divide on the issue, with millennials in particular opposed to the Truman Doctrine. And a recent Pew Poll showed that 57 percent of all Americans believe that the U.S. should stay out of other country’s problems.
“As for the 2016 election, use of foreign military power has not been a big issue — other than the proposed use of tactics by Donald Trump that are generally regarded as war crimes: carpet bombing, killing civilian relatives of terrorists, increased use of torture, etc.,” he said.
“According to a recent Pew Poll, about 75 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. is the leading military power. Bernie Sanders was in favor of pulling back U.S. overseas presence but mostly campaigned on domestic policy issues. That said, the next President will define U.S. foreign policy going forward. Congress has completely shirked any responsibility for foreign policy and delegated basically all decision making to the executive branch.”
Shelley rounded up a number of high-profile experts to discuss the issue, including former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright and George Schultz. Former PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer narrates the documentary.
“We interviewed a total of 18 foreign policy experts in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Milan. To avoid any partisan slant, we stayed away from politicians or individuals who represented a political point of view,” Shelley said. “We targeted foreign policy experts in the government, military and academia with a strong knowledge of the issues. That resulted in over 25 hours of interview footage, which had to be cut down to under 30 minutes. That was the biggest challenge. Another big challenge was getting compelling archival footage. I wanted really powerful clips and images that had not been widely used and would help move the story forward. Finding the right archival footage is very difficult and time consuming. But I’m very pleased with what we got.”
By far, the U.S. has the largest military budget and the biggest fighting force in the world. But Schultz suggested during his interview that the world would fall apart if Congress downsized the military and stopped policing the planet, as other experts suggested in the documentary.
“As a filmmaker, I see my responsibility at making a fair presentation of both sides of the argument,” Shelley said. “If I had to draw any conclusion, it would be that the world is a very different place than it was in 1947. Security risks have changed. The major risks today come from failed states and terrorism. So I think we need to think about the world differently. What is the best strategy to protect our citizens from these risks? The British have been fighting terrorism since the 1950s — IRA, etc. But they didn’t use battleships and tanks.”
That said, Shelley hopes his documentary has an impact on its viewers.
“I hope that ‘American Umpire’ will begin a national conversation about our foreign policy,” he said. “Too often that conversation breaks down into a false dichotomy: You are painted as either an All-American, red-blooded interventionist or a yellow-bellied isolationist. Those are not our only choices. Let’s come together as a nation and figure out what is the best path of the U.S. and the world going forward.”
‘A Return to the End’
Pat Clark, an award-winning filmmaker and artist from San Diego, is the director of “A Return to the End.” When not making movies, Clark is a faculty member at the University of Colorado — Boulder working in the Department of Critical Media Practices. He explains how he came to making his documentary.
“In 2010 I was a graduate student at San Diego State. I was working on documentary project surrounding the fall of Saigon; it was the 35th anniversary that year,” he said.
“I knew next to nothing about it so while I was in the process of researching the topic I got in contact with Doug Potratz from the Fall of Saigon Marines Association. I drove up to Santa Ana, California and we spoke about his experience. He was incredibly helpful and was such a asset to me as I finished the film. A few years go by and Doug calls me in August 2014 and says they are planning a trip back to Vietnam for the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and the 40th anniversary of death of Charles and Darwin [the last two Marines who died before the fall of Saigon]. They had commissioned a beautiful plaque that would be dedicated at the old U.S. Embassy compound and he wondered if I would be interested in documenting the trip. Of course I said yes without having any idea how I would pay for the trip.
“Personally, I have no connection to the story. I wasn’t in the military, I don’t have family in the military and I have no other connections to the war,” Clark continued. “What interested me was the fact that these guys had put in so much time and effort to remember Charles and Darwin over the last 40 years and what a statement they were about to make by returning to Vietnam to honor them again. They [the Fall of Saigon Marines Association] have created a foundation, they award scholarships every year and they are very involved in education the public about the war.”
Making the movie posed a number of challenges for Clark.
“Anytime you shoot a film you are going to encounter difficulties. The press visa process was especially difficult. With all of the press coming into the country to cover the event there were many steps to making it happen,” he said. “Once approved, we had a liaison from the ministry of culture with us 24/7. He stayed in our hotel, ate with us and traveled with us. We didn’t encounter any resistance or hostility during our time there aside from all of the streets being shut down for the parade on April 30.
“Originally the group had planned to visit the exact spot where Charles and Darwin were killed but when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City we were informed that the Vietnamese government did not what that to happen. They didn’t feel it would be in the spirit of the day. As we show in the film, although they were asked not to do so, several people tracked the spot Charles and Darwin were killed on their own. We also had to sneak out without our liaison to cover this but it’s one of the most important moments in the film in my opinion,” Clark said.
With a tight budget and filming permits costing almost $4,000, Clark was in a pickle.
“For this project I was able to talk my good friend Mike Fritz, from “PBS NewsHour,” to travel to Vietnam and work as a second camera operator on his own dime. I had help in San Diego as well from friends who assisted with everything from shooting to creating motion graphics. I edited the film myself. San Diego is rich with lots of great visual storytellers and I certainly leaned on friends and colleagues during each stage of the process,” he said.
“Being in Vietnam during the 40th anniversary was certainly an experience I will never forget. Trying to imagine what it was like exactly 40 years earlier was hard to do. The city was covered with poster and signs highlighting the anniversary. We never encountered any hostility but it was clearly a big deal to the Vietnamese.”
The documentary focuses on why the Marines were determined to honor their young comrades who died that fateful day 40 years ago.
“I think they know firsthand how much good Charles and Darwin did while they were there. Even if it was short time, they help thousands of people get out before the fall. People who came to America and had successful lives,” Clark said.
“I also think that their deaths get overshadowed by the drama of the day. Many films, articles and other media coverage seem to omit their deaths and the fact that their bodies were left in Vietnam for nearly a year is also an important but little known fact. I was guilty of this myself. During the production of my project in 2010, Doug told me about Charles and Darwin and that part didn’t make the cut in my piece. It wasn’t until I really looked at their story that I realized how important that part of the story was.”
Did the Marines get closure after 40 years?
“I think they got to see that the world has moved on. That Vietnam has progressed beyond the chaos they experienced 40 years earlier. I believe each person has been handling their experience differently but coming together and accomplishing this goal as a group reminded them that they are not alone. I believe they now feel like they have placed a permanent reminder of their sacrifice at the spot where all of this happened. Knowing that the plaque will be there long after they are gone means a great deal to this group,” Clark said.
Clark hopes audiences learn something from the movie.
“I think the takeaway is that no matter what experiences you have you need to know that you are not alone,” he said. “Commitment and brotherhood are big themes I hope people take away from this film. It’s not a military thing, per se; it’s human thing. Going through anything like this and feeling alone is a dark place. I hope this film gives people glimpse of what it looks like to face the dark places and come out changed on the other side.”
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.