Putting a spotlight on military veterans through film

Veterans Film Festival. The Australian War Memorial. October 18-22, 2017. veteransfilmfestival.com.

Veterans Film Festival director Tom Papas says, "We want to put the spotlight on stories about veterans, their families, first responders and the impact war has on society."

Towards that end, he has appointed three military veterans to the board of the festival in this, its third year, as well as presenting five days of film screenings at the Australian War Memorial in October. RSL National has become a partner to the festival.

Veterans Film Festival president Damien Thomlinson lost his legs in the war in Afghanistan. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Veterans Film Festival president Damien Thomlinson lost his legs in the war in Afghanistan. Photo: Jamila Toderas

The first new board member, Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret'd), served as a Nursing Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force for 16 years, with deployments to Timor-Leste in 2000 and 2004 and Afghanistan in 2008 as Officer in Charge of the Australian Medical Task Force in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. She was seriously injured in a helicopter crash in Timor-Leste in 2004, but successfully fought to continue to serve. She is the author of One Woman's War and Peace: a nurse's journey in the Royal Australian Air Force, and is a Member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.

Vice-president Talissa Papamau is an Afghanistan veteran, and former Australian Army Combat Medic. Following her medical separation from Defence, she founded the online veteran support group Modern Soldier and is the executive director of the Remembrance Foundation.

And the president of the Veterans Film Festival, Damien Thomlinson, is a Special Forces veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan and has remade his life working as an author, motivational speaker, veterans' advocate and actor, most notably in Mel Gibson's World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge.

Thomlinson said he was "honoured" to play such a significant role with the festival.

"This is a great opportunity for filmmakers and veterans to present their stories on the big screen."

He wants to raise public awareness of the festival and help set it up for the long term. His own public profile will help in this.

Thomlinson was badly wounded at the age of 28 on April 4, 2009 when he drove a special reconnaissance vehicle over an improvised explosive device. The other passengers suffered some injury but he bore the brunt of the blast and lost both legs as well as suffering severe wounding to his arms, a broken shoulder and facial injuries. He spent a few weeks in intensive care and months in rehab learning to walk on prosthetic legs.

But he's still alive: one of the men who saved him in Afghanistan, his friend Scott Palmer, was killed in a helicopter crash a week before he was due to return home. Another comrade also died recently.

"We lost him six weeks ago. Suicide."

Thomlinson says he turned to acting after his military service in part because he wanted to explore emotions more.

"I wanted to be in touch with myself," he says.

In the military he was used to a very black and white, rigid set of standards to live by but in civilian life he he would have to readjust to a completely different way of life - and having endured a particularly difficult experience, he needed help. Acting seemed a constructive way to reconcile with his feelings and learn something new.

He spent two and a half years training in the Meisner technique, a mix of improvisation, personal response and textual work, and had his big break in Hacksaw Ridge as a soldier whose feet were blown off and who was rescued by conscientious objector Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield). He has nothing but good things to say about the experience, calling it "great fun".

Papas says the organisers received more than 250 submissions from around the world to consider for this year's festival ranging from animated shorts less than two minutes long to full-length feature films.

The opening night film on October 18 at 6.30pm is the 2015 German drama 13 Minutes, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. It's based on the true story of George Elser (played by Christian Frieder), who in November 1939 tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The home-made bomb he planted detonated in a venue the Nazi leader had left just 13 minutes earlier.

Also screening in the festival is And We Were Young, (October 21, 6.30pm), Andy Smetanka's stop-motion, silhouette-animation oral history of American soldiers in the last months of World War I.

"It's screening on the 100th anniversary of US armed forces entering World War I," Papas says.

"It took three years to make and used 250,000 cut-outs."

"It's narrated by letters from 'Doughboys' as American soldiers were called."

Another film, Silence is the Accomplice, was directed by Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who will be speaking at the screening (October 22, 4.30pm).

"It's about people who suffered abuse in the armed forces," Papas says.

And there are more films to discover in the festival including a session of short films - it's advised to arrive at least 30 minutes before each advertised screening time.

This story Putting a spotlight on military veterans through film first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.