The Twin Cities Film Festival opens in St. Louis Park Wednesday evening with the Minnesota-made movie "Blood Stripe." The film follows the trials of a female Marine returning from combat duty.
It opens with a Marine sergeant returning from her latest overseas tour. After she lands at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, she returns home to find a guy sitting on the front step.
"You live here?" she asks.
"Yeah, with my wife and three kids," he says, taking a drag of his cigarette.
"Well, I guess I got the wrong house," she says.
He stands up and they wrap their arms around each other.
"Welcome home baby," he says. Then he adds with a smile, "I didn't miss you for a second."
"No, me neither," she says as they walk inside.
Her husband's name is Rusty. We never learn the name of the Marine.
She's played by Kate Nowlin, who wrote the screenplay with her husband, Remy Auberjonois. He directed the film. He is also an actor, currently appearing in "Sense and Sensibility" at the Guthrie Theater.
Together they were looking to develop a film project he could direct. They live in the Twin Cities, but often visit a family cabin in St. Louis County, near the Canadian border. It was there they saw an article about a woman from Cook who had been named soldier of the year by the Army Times. That got them thinking, Nowlin said, about women serving in combat. Suddenly it seemed they were hearing similar stories from all over.
"There was a New York Times op-ed piece that we read about female combatants coming back, and there could be room to shine some light on those people's stories," said Nowlin.
In "Blood Stripe," the returning sergeant's family throws a welcome-home party. While everyone else is excited, she drowns her stress with beer after beer.
"I bet Rusty missed you!" says one female friend with a knowing smile.
"I hope so," she replies sheepishly.
"I bet you are ready to start that family now."
A look of concern crosses the sergeant's face. "Almost. Yeah, almost. Just got home ... ."
As the party continues, she drinks more and more. Then a male guest suddenly grabs her from behind, and she lashes out. Rusty has to restrain her as, in a frenzy, she beats the guy to the ground. The party's over.
As the days pass, she withdraws into herself. She gets a job running a road repair crew. Then one day she just takes off, driving north. She's looking for a way to help herself.
Auberjonois said returning vets often struggle to find the support they need.
"We don't have a lot of processes by which we are helping these people re-engage into society," he said. "There's little awareness. We are not seeing the wars, in a lot of ways. There's not ritual, which other cultures have, older cultures have had, whereby we sort of reintegrate warriors. That was a big piece of it for us, that sort of re-integration. What is that process? And for women it presents a whole unique set of challenges, so we were interested in exploring that."
In the film, the woman ends up working at a church camp near Lake Vermilion, looking for solace and connection in the gentle rituals of visitors on a retreat. Even there, she can't relax. She sees menace everywhere.
Something has happened to her, but we never find out what. Nowlin said that's deliberate.
"We are hoping, as it reaches broader audiences, that people can project their experience or their loved one's experience onto her and she can serve as that vessel," she explained.
"Blood Stripe" not only launches the Twin Cities Film Festival, it also launches the festival's Changemaker series. It's the first of five films being shown on the theme of helping veterans. Another is the documentary "Iron Will," by Minnesota producer Tim VandeSteeg, which gets its world premiere at the event.
Nowlin and Auberjonois have enjoyed great festival success with "Blood Stripe," including winning the U.S. Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Festival. For Nowlin, it's just a beginning.
"We feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to this subject matter and to this population," she said. "And really feel a great commitment to try to share the film with the military and our civilians."
Now they are looking at ways to ensure broader distribution.