For several years now, Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah has produced notable documentary screening events. The long-established local nonprofit organization formed specifically to bring the touring roadshow version of Telluride’s famed Mountainfilm Festival to our fair city.
Right around each Veterans Day holiday, this group presents a special public viewing of one or more award-winning non-fiction films focused on aspects of the life experience of those who serve (or have served) in the armed forces.
These well-attended gatherings are held at Service Brewing Co., a locally owned and operated craft brewery housed in an industrial space on Indian Street a few doors down from SCAD’s Film and TV Department.
Service Brewing is an ideal setting for these celebrations of personal military achievement, as its co-founder and CEO Kevin Ryan is a veteran himself, and the ethos of the successful independent business is rooted in the discipline and drive emblematic of military service. Furthermore, the business model was intentionally designed to support the armed forces through routine donations of its proceeds to worthwhile causes related to those who’ve served.
Three short films
This year’s Veterans Day screening is at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8, preceded by a social hour of mingling, conversation and catered food and drinks at 5:30 p.m. Instead of one feature film, as has been the case in most years past, there will be three award-winning short documentaries: “Fear Us Women,” “Return from Desolation” and “Adventure Not War.” The total running time for all three films is just under 70 minutes, and immediately after two of the films, the audience members will be treated to a live discussion and Q&A with three main participants: Hanna Bohman and Katie Katz (the subject and producer, respectively, of “Fear Us Women”) and Garrett Eaton (the subject of “Return from Desolation”).
“Several of our local board members and staff attended the annual Mountainfilm Memorial Day weekend festival in Telluride this year,” explains Leslie Carey, director of Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah. “Most all of us saw these films there, and it was a unanimous decision to screen all three for our event. They are such powerful, inspirational motion pictures. Each is beautifully done. We think they will appeal to veterans and to our broader audience as well.”
“Fear Us Women” is a portrait of Bohman, a Canadian citizen with essentially no military background who, upon learning of the shocking acts of violence and subjugation being perpetrated by ISIS, decided to travel to Syria and volunteer herself as a soldier to fight as part of an all-female Kurdish army. This up-close and personal look at life on the front lines for female soldiers fighting zealously for women’s liberation in the extremely adverse conditions of the Middle Eastern desert is an eye-opening look at a life-threatening day-to-day existence most can only imagine.
“Return from Desolation” focuses on Eaton, a former U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan and developed PTSD. “When Garrett returned,” says Carey, “he almost lost his family and his life to addiction.” However, upon entering an unusual program for troubled and struggling veterans that retrained them as river guides in treacherous, remote territory, Eaton found the focus and challenge he needed to get his life back under his own control.
“He now works part-time in the North Dakota oil fields and part-time as a river guide on Utah’s Desolation Canyon, and is bringing his wife and three of his four children to Savannah for our event,” says Carey.
Justin Clifton, the director of “Return from Desolation,” says this won’t be the first time Eaton has been to our neck of the woods. “Garrett was stationed in Beaufort, S.C., for a time,” he says. “I spent three years living in Savannah myself while my then-girlfriend was attending SCAD. I absolutely loved my time there and unfortunately can’t make it this time around because of other obligations, but I do know that Garrett and his family are looking forward to getting out there.”
'Landed at the heart'
Clifton says the decision to make a film about Eaton’s experiences actually came about by happenstance after he and his fellow collaborators met the veteran-turned-tour-guide while in preparation to make a short film about the environmental threats posed to the Green River and Desolation Canyon — one of the most beautiful and remote areas in the entire USA.
“I knew we needed to find a solid character to bring emotion to the story,” says Clifton. “We had a conference call and talked to Garrett about being the subject, and he was game. I don’t think he really understood what we were asking of him… As you can imagine, it's a pretty vulnerable position to put yourself in to have your story told by a complete stranger. I assured Garrett that I would handle his story with care and he took the risk. For me, it is this vulnerability and openness that give the film so much meaning to so many people.
“As a filmmaker, it was important for me to make a film that landed at the heart, rather than on any one side of the aisle. It’s a delicate balance when you’re telling environmental stories because people can become so polarized in their thinking. For me, I really wanted to transcend the polarization and tell a human story that shows the complexities of our human experience. I’ve been blown away with how this film has been well received by people with differing opinions politically, but who can see the human value in the conversation that we’re trying to have.
"I have seen that most people who see this film can see a bit of themselves in the story, and that connects us in very powerful ways.”
The third and final film, “Adventure Not War,” tells the story of Iraq War veteran Stacy Bare, who found himself abusing drugs and alcohol as well after returning from conflict. In a desperate bid to reclaim his equilibrium, Bare cajoled two other Army friends into joining him in a most unusual expedition. The three of them returned to Iraq, but not to fight. This time, they were there skiing in the mountains and documenting their journey on film.
Freed from their obligations to engage in combat, they allowed themselves to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape and to meet and interact leisurely with residents of that war-torn country. The result is a sort of cultural exchange program based around outdoor adventure and camaraderie that has resonated with scores of folks who have learned of their efforts — some of whom have been inspired to make similar journeys of their own for similar purposes.
Bridging the gap
Clifton says events such as this screening at Service Brewing are important to bridge the gaps in understanding between those who’ve served in military combat and those who have not, yet may interact with veterans on a daily basis.
“I have had the honor of showing 'Return from Desolation' to a wide variety of audiences, including members of the military, past and present,” he offers. “I think the story Garrett tells offers a glimpse into somebody who has struggled with PTSD, substance abuse and depression, and poignantly discusses ways they have found healing in public lands. It’s vital to continue having open conversations around these issues so people don’t feel alone.
"With that said, I think that this film offers a glimpse into humanity that even members of the community who have never served can gain value from, and even offers a perspective for people to understand how to support those who have served and may be struggling.”
According to Carey, Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah is expecting a capacity crowd of 250 or more viewers, or at least close to it.
“We were so excited to have a packed house at Service Brewing last year,” she beams. “We ran out of chairs and many folks had to stand. A lot of tickets are sold in advance, but the event is free to all veterans, so we will always make room for them, and the folks at Service are great about creating makeshift seating in a pinch!”