On a recent Friday evening, I found myself in the presence of greatness, sitting amongst a group of people on the grounds of Sarasota Film Festival. The setting for the meeting could not have been more perfect, with a light breeze engulfing Downtown, so that those enjoying time outside on balconies and porches did not need a reprieve from the setting sun and its warmth.
It was much like a scene from a blockbuster movie except the characters in this set are real-life heroes, not movie execs or showy stars with recognizable faces. They were men and women of the Unites States Armed Forces who had left family, friends, their homes, and all that was familiar to them to protect the safety and sanctity of the country they love. And, now, in addition to being legitimate heroes, they found themselves with a new title: Filmmakers.
Veterans Filmmaking Academy, in conjunction with Project Rebirth, is premiering “Returning” at the Sarasota Film Festival on April 4, at 6:30 P.M. The film follows the journey of individuals involved with Veterans’ Treatment Court and Peer Counseling, an innovative program that deals with the many difficulties veterans face integrating back into society after deployment. What is unique about this documentary is that every aspect of it, from the concept, set locations, filming, editing, and everything in-between was produced by a handful of veterans, almost all without any prior filmmaking experience.
The inaugural class of the 2017 Veterans Filmmaking Academy includes Rae Chapman, director/producer, Michael Scelia, director/camera operator, Eddie Cacciola, producer/director of photography, and Jeff Garner, sound mixer/peer teacher. So, what made this group of veterans- some with children, and all with jobs and lives tempered by their experiences in the service, want to learn the ins and outs of creating a film? In true service to others, all members felt a responsibility to the vast number of men and women who return from a deployment without the resources to successfully reintegrate. They knew that shining the spotlight on Veterans’ Treatment Court could provide the broadest scope of assistance for their brethren. They all found themselves instantly caught up in an exciting venture where they could learn new skills, focus on issues they loved, and could continue fighting for other soldiers at home. And, although home is a far cry from the dangers most of our veterans have faced, it can be a lonely and uncharitable place to be without the proper assistance.
The production of “Returning” was a complex process that united the veterans with some heavy hitters in the film industry including Jason Benjamin, director of “Suited” and HBO’s “Girls,” who taught the theory behind filmmaking, and Triforce Pictures, who instructed the vets on technique. A rigorous and swift curriculum ensued at Sarasota Film Festival, where offices were transformed into classrooms. Students learned everything about the components of camera operation, lighting, effects, editing, sound, and teamwork. Sarasota Film Festival’s Greg Borgnichak served as the group’s operations manager and created the entire score for “Returning.” They all look forward to working with next year’s class of newly trained filmmakers, in any capacity.
The group wants the public to know that the film is a testimony to the men and women who put their lives on the front line and then return to their communities, sometimes unable to cope with everyday life. They want them to know there are resources and tools available to assist their transition and that programs like Veterans’ Treatment Court are a helpful approach to problem solving. You can catch “Returning” at its world premiere at the Sarasota Opera House on April 4, at 6:30 P.M. For more information, please visit www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.
Photos courtesy of Sarasota Film Festival Facebook page.