For Elvis Leon and many other military veterans, Film is a powerful tool. Through film, former soldiers like Leon have found a meaningful way to express themselves and connect with fellow veterans. That’s why, with help from the Denver Film Society and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1, Leon decided to organize the Military Veterans Shorts Program, a two-part showcase of short films made by those who have served and sacrificed.
Leon, 30, enlisted in the US Army from 2004 to 2008 and was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq from 2006 to 2007. When he got out, he was feeling aimless, until film school caught his eye.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Leon explains. “One day I drove by a film school. I didn’t really know those things existed, so I went in there and I haven’t looked back since.”
When Leon finished his degree at the Colorado Film School, he had a few acclaimed pieces under his belt. One of them, “Angels of Anbar,” was accepted to the 2015 GI Film Festival. From an interview with the festival, Leon describes “Angels of Anbar” as a brutally honest depiction of the war in Iraq. It even documents soldiers’ drug and alcohol abuse, which Leon witnessed firsthand.
Started by husband and wife team, Brandon and Laura Millett, the GI Film Festival has been happening in Washington D.C. every year since 2006. While there in May, Leon met a lot of important veteran filmmakers who inspired him to create his own film series. When he got back to Denver, he reached out to Executive Director of VFW Post 1 Michael Mitchel, who has been a member of the Denver Film Society since 1999.
“I know artistic director Brit Withey so I approached him,” Mitchel explains. “We’ve sponsored other movies, like ‘Korengal’ and ‘Invisible War,’ but this was the first time we said, ‘Let’s do a concerted effort to screen veteran films.’”
Leon himself was able to collect a mix of films from the GI Film Fest, the Veterans of Film and Television organization and local filmmakers. Part one of the program screened Aug. 16, but part two will be taking place tonight, Wednesday, Aug. 19, at the SIE FilmCenter. Compared to the Aug. 16 selections, tonight’s films will be a little less serious and more on the comedic side.
“Were going to be closing out the series with a film called ‘Climb,’ a short documentary about a double amputee who took life by the horns and cycled across the country,” Leon says. “It’s filmed in a comedic manner because of who the veteran is.”
Leon’s submission for part two is “Charlie’s,” a sitcom about a straight bar owner who wants to turn his local watering hole into a gay bar to attract more customers. According to Leon, the independently produced show deals with some tough issues, like homophobia and alcoholism. Still, it’s meant to make people laugh.
Part one drew a mixture of young and old veterans, as well as many non-veterans. Tonight, Leon and Mitchel are hoping for the same crowd. Leon feels like both veterans and civilians of all ages need to see these films.
“It’s a glimpse of the veteran experience,” Leon says. “I think people are tired of hearing about the war, but what we saw, that lives with us everyday. It might not be a popular thing for the masses to see, but it’s a very important part of our history, American history.”
Soon, Leon will be leaving for London to live with his girlfriend while she attends graduate school. Fellow filmmaker and VFW Post 1 member Anthony Ngo will be taking over Leon’s role, selecting films for next year’s program.
Part of why VFW Post 1 draws so many creative veterans is because it’s the most artistic post of its kind. It’s also the first VFW post in the world. Built in 1899, the post is located in the heart of the Denver Art District on Sante Fe and it participates in “first Friday” art walks.
“When you walk into post 1, it’s an art gallery,” Mitchel notes. “We do photography, art, painting, story writing and we’re starting to work on spoken word. We really view ourselves as being a cultural hub for veterans who need an artistic outlet.”
“The common thing we tell people is that we’re the oldest post with the youngest membership,” he continues. “What we’re finding is today’s younger generation of veterans have something they want to say.”
And, as long as Ngo and Mitchell can find films for next year, those veteran filmmakers and others will be able to tell Denver their stories. Check out more about part two of the program right here.