“The Gatekeeper” is a USC Cinematic Arts Thesis short film about a veteran who returns home and struggles to reintegrate into regular life. He longs to return to service while his wife wants him to stay home and start a family.
The film touches upon topical issues of the veteran experience, about life both in combat and at home and mental health struggles. Jordan Michael Martinez is a masters student in film production who co-wrote, executive produced and directed the film that will screen on Saturday.
Martinez gravitates towards stories about soldiers and veterans because of his personal experience serving 10 years in the military. He enlisted in the United States Army when he was 17. Martinez initially enlisted into a logistical job before becoming a U.S Paratrooper under Special Operations and a member of a Civil Affairs team.
“I actually thought to myself, ‘they’re actually gonna pay me to work out. I’m working out and getting paid,’” Martinez said.
When Martinez returned home, he wanted to break into the film industry. After working as a production assistant, he decided to go back to school and enrolled in the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Martinez was keen on bringing veterans into the project to ensure the film was accurate. He connected with many of them through the Veterans in Media & Entertainment (VME) group, a nonprofit networking organization that helps veterans break into the media and entertainment industry.
It was there that Martinez met Colonel Arnold Strong, Christopher Loverro and Jennifer Marshall - all of whom appear in the film. Loverro plays the protagonist and Marshall portrays his wife. Colonel Strong plays a smaller role in a solider’s funeral scene.
Colonel Arnold Strong was prepared for his role as a color guard in the film, as he has run color guard for eight military funerals in his own life.
“I did my best to maintain authenticity to everything. They’re not drawing from what they see on television, they’re drawing from real life,” Martinez said.
It’s not only the actors who drew on personal experiences. Martinez was inspired by people he knew who battled depression after returning home from the military. He hoped to make the film relatable to veterans dealing with similar issues readjusting to life at home.
“It’s easy to decivilize people. And some people never come out of it,” Martinez said. “It’s sad to see a culture that doesn’t quite understand the whole mentality that goes into being an eighteen-year-old soldier.”
But the military mindset can take its toll.
“You come out of it and you’re like ‘I’m ok.’ But your mind is designed differently after so long. And that doesn’t often translate to civil society. It leads to isolation, leads to drug abuse, eventually depression and then, in extreme cases, suicide.” Martinez said.
Loverro hopes that the film resonates with anyone struggling with mental health issues. “If you have PTSD or have been affected by an event, you are not weak. Getting help is not a sign of weakness,” he said.
It is difficult for civilians to understand the military experience because of the ways it is often portrayed in the media.
“Hollywood tends to make two types of films. Either the burnt-out veteran with PTSD or the Special Forces commando,” Loverro said.
These stereotypes can be harmful to veterans’ mental health, making it difficult to reintegrate into society.
“Everyday viewers need to know that this is something veterans deal with that is too often used for sensationalistic purposes. But our wars should not be viewed as just ‘everyone else’s war’,” Marshall said.
While “The Gatekeeper” hopes to resonate with those currently or formerly involved in the military, Martinez feels his film is also relevant to civilians that make up a majority of the population. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, less than 0.5% of the United States population is on active duty.
“Nevermind that, that isn’t sustainable,” commented Colonel Strong. “It’s reflective of the fact that 99.5% of America does not know what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to understanding the military.”
Part of the reason “The Gatekeeper” was so important to those involved was because of the amount of control they had to tell their narrative in the way they wanted to and not just act as consultants.
“Right now it’s a struggle to get credibility in [the media and entertainment] industry,” Loverro said. “No one really sees us as a viable force in the industry because we’re usually dismissed as ‘Oh, you can be a consultant or you can run around with a gun.’ But no, we can actually hold our own. We can produce quality art. We can produce good films.”
Martinez understands that, while “The Gatekeeper” speaks to military experience, it does not reflect everyone’s story. “I want to make a difference. I want to start a conversation. I think [The Gatekeeper] will save lives and it will save civilian lives too,” he said.
Some of the veterans involved try to make a difference themselves. Marshall volunteers for a variety of veteran-related charities and organizations, one being Pin-Ups for Vets, in which veteran volunteers dress up in vintage outfits and visit veterans in hospitals and nursing homes. The sales of their annual calendar help fund their 50-state hospital tour to ensure veterans all over the country are visited.
Loverro found personal catharsis through the arts and theatre and now helps veterans do the same through his theatre company, Warriors for Peace.
“If you really want to help veterans you need to go beyond ‘thank you for your service,’” Marshall said.
As much as these organizations help, there is also a desire for more governmental support for veterans.
“The policy doesn’t change unless the culture changes,” said Martinez. “ I’m trying to influence the culture so hopefully one day the policies change. Hopefully, we can make a real impact on veterans’ lives now as well as those in the future.”
Martinez hopes that “The Gatekeeper” can be expanded into a full-length feature film. “I would love to do it where it’s theatrically released,” he said. “It’s a totally different, surreal experience that actually has the power of actually having an emotional impact on you, much more than watching it in front of a television screen.”