By Kendra Sitton
Hillcrest filmmaker Cy Kuckenbaker will be bring his short film “Tiger Oak + Echo” to this year’s virtual GI Film Fest.
The 19-minute short focuses on two brothers, the younger of whom makes the mistake of thinking he can become a man through violence.
“It’s short and it hits,” Kuckenbaker said. He noted the film takes people somewhere “they’ve pretty much never been before.”
“Tiger Oak + Echo” is set in Lithuania, where Kuckenbaker served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2000-2002 and has visited several times since. While many Americans may be unfamiliar with the historic uprising depicted in the film, to Lithuanians, the fighters who spent years attempting to fight off Soviet troops have reached mythic status. The fighters, known as Forest Brothers, were not a part of an official military as they fought the much larger force of the Soviet Union after World War II during the Cold War.
Kuckenbaker described the fighters as being “like Robin Hood” and part of a compelling underdog story.
While Kuckenbaker is a local who works full-time as a film professor at San Diego City College, everything else about the film is international. It was filmed in Lithuania with an entirely Lithuanian cast and crew.
“The only American there was me,” he said.
The biggest challenge in this was finding a good producer who had the connections needed to book good film locations and organize the filming. Many of the best producers are uninterested in short film projects. Many producers were also seeking work on bigger productions in the country like Netflix’s hit show “Stranger Things.”
Kuckenbaker finished two other films as he waited to find the perfect producer after writing the initial script. The finished work, at a tight 19 minutes, could be adapted into a feature but he said he has yet to hear of any interest from funders on expanding the work.
“At this juncture I don’t think that’ll happen but that’s always a possibility,” he said.
Kuckenbaker is excited to participate in this year’s GI Film Festival. He typically showcases his work in other countries so he is enthused about the local aspect of this festival.
“I really like the local angle. I like participating in these local screenings. San Diego’s local scene has gotten stronger and stronger over the years. So, it’s really nice to be in my community, people sharing work and talking about it,” he said.
Kuckenbaker first moved here in 1993. Since then, his career has largely focused on other parts of the world even while he kept San Diego as his home base.
Kuckenbaker chose San Diego over LA even though his film school friends at the California Insititute of the Arts. He disliked that in LA his friends talked about film 24/7 which he did not find interesting. In San Diego, none of the people he talks to on a daily basis are filmmakers.
“To be honest, It’s my home. We’re underdogs and you know I love being an underdog,” he said.
In addition, Kuckenbaker is excited about the GI Film Fest because the audience already understands the context of the military. The GI Film Fest is the largest military film festival in the U.S. San Diego is a fitting location with seven major bases.
In 2021, more than half of the lineup includes films made by or starring active duty military or veterans, 11 were made by female directors, eight were directed by first-time filmmakers, and another eight are student films.
To help bridge the military-civilian divide, each film selected tells a compelling and unique story. The GI Film Festival San Diego challenges notions about what it means to serve and goes beyond one-dimensional depictions of veterans, service members, their caregivers and families.
This year’s film fest takes place from May 18-23. Tickets are $10 per screening and many films include a panel with the filmmakers afterwards. There is also an option to watch the films on demand. Learn more at www.gifilmfestivalsd.org.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at email@example.com.