23 Jan Major Gloria Downey, 2023 Official Selection Winner, Gives a Voice to Women In War
Speaking truth to power is at the core of who Major Gloria Downey is. Throughout her career as a public defender, a judge advocate (JAG) in the U.S. Air Force, and now as an independent filmmaker, Gloria has used her talents to give a voice to the voiceless.
When you hear Gloria’s story, it’s easy to see why she has such a passion for the right to free speech and how her experience dealing with multiple human rights issues has transformed her life and turned her into a self-professed “lifelong warrior for justice.”
“I grew up in the inner city of Miami, Florida, and was raised by a black man, so I knew from an early age that black lives matter but not to everyone. This drove me to the law. I spent several years as a public defender in the South,” she said. “9/11 compelled me to compete to be a JAG in the U.S. Air Force at 31 years old. Military service has been a huge part of my family’s legacy. I opted to serve our country despite the injustice of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. I was a trailblazer in the fight to deal with sexual assault in the military. I deployed to Baghdad in 2007 to, as I was told, make right the injustices of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. This was a lie. I served in a sham court system which directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. I was permanently disabled during this deployment, was medically retired, and was basically left for dead by the Air Force and Veterans Affairs (VA) after my military service.”
Although her time in the military was ultimately not a positive experience for her, Gloria made her mark with the work she did. During her years of service, she was hand-selected by the Judge Advocate General of the United States Air Force to fill a highly sought-after Senior Defense Counsel position. Her many assignments included serving as an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate, Chief of Litigation, Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, and Senior Litigation Attorney. While assigned to Ramstein Air Base, then-Captain Downey deployed to Baghdad in 2007 where she prosecuted terrorists in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.
She was very actively involved in the military’s sexual assault crisis and response, both as a prosecutor and defense attorney. As a prosecutor, she created sexual assault prevention seminars for dormitory residents, which were benchmarked by the Air Force and the Department of Defense; was appointed to respond to a high-level inquiry by the Department of Defense regarding the prosecution and defense of sexual assault allegations in the military; and was the driving force behind expanding rape prosecutions to include cases of rape based on psychological force alone. As a defense attorney, she developed and disseminated a new strategy for overcoming rape shield laws in appropriate cases.
Years after she medically retired from military service in 2009, Gloria attended her first Wounded Warrior Project event, where she met other women who also had negative experiences serving in the military. During this time, she was working on completing her Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California, which she finished in 2015. When she shared the stories of these women she met with her Director of Production, he suggested that she turn it into a movie. That’s how Women of War: Invisible began.
Women of War: Invisible is a feature documentary that tells the story of three female combat veterans of the post-9/11 era through interviews and dance and asks, “Can you see us now?” For Gloria, it was important to tell these stories and bring both recognition and healing to these women. The film was completed in 2020 and made its world premiere at the Lady Filmmaker’s Film Festival in 2021.
“The interviews you see in Women of War: Invisible were the first time these women told their stories in their entirety. I knew from my years in the courtroom, leading victims through testimony, that America needed to hear these stories in full. Since making the film, I feel I have given voice to the voiceless and I know that many people, including myself and the interviewees, have found healing in this film,” she said.
While Gloria has entered the film in several festivals, she knew the Free Speech Film Festival was the perfect platform to share this story.
“My film is about military women speaking out about their experiences and most Americans don’t want to hear that. We are still fighting to be recognized as service members and for the health care and benefits we deserve. We have been relegated to sit and wait for our country to see us and they are certainly not interested in hearing us ‘complain’,” she said. “My film upsets people; they don’t want to think about the things we talk about. Free Speech Film Festival is the one place I know our speech is valued and truly free.”
By speaking out and entering her film in the Free Speech Film Festival, Gloria hopes to emphasize to others that the power of Free Speech should always outweigh any fears you may have. She also feels that even if someone lives where Free Speech is not a given right, they shouldn’t be afraid to stand up and speak out.
“Free speech is what makes America great. Free speech is what changes the culture of our society and allows us to take action to deal with injustice. Free speech is what empowers us to criticize our government and countrymen while also maintaining our status as patriots,” she said. “Keep talking! Free or not, seize every platform! If they object, shine a light on their objections and ask what they are afraid of. Stand on the soap box at the doorsteps of injustice and scream until injustice is no more. Fear is a liar. Fear is the only thing that stops us from speaking out. The consequences of our speech, no matter how onerous, are never as soul-killing as those for enabling and perpetuating injustice via silence. Silence is the song of the coward.”
She also encourages other filmmakers to submit their work to the Free Speech Film Festival. “Have a story you know needs to be told but no one wants to hear? Send it here! Speaking truth to power is what Free Speech is all about,” she said.
In addition to being a 2023 Official Selection-winner at the Free Speech Film Festival, Women of War: Invisible also won Best Feature at the Worldwide Women’s Film Festival in 2022. Gloria is currently working on three films, including two additional films that detail her time in the military.
“My short documentary What I Did in the War is currently up for film festivals. It is my testimony as to what we were doing in that sham court system in Iraq – breeding ISIS. The film consists of my dailies taken on the ground during my deployment as well as my voice-over explaining what we were doing there and how I found out. I have also written a pilot called Like Diamonds for the Flies which covers my years entering the Air Force up to my deployment. The series will cover the deployment (ISIS breeding) and the post-war fight for health care, compensation and dignity, as well as my recent victory over those circumstances via filmmaking and radical self-care,” she said. “Also, there is the most important and powerful thing I have ever done so far – channeling Malicious Disobedience into an epic movie script. This is radical feminist revisionist history focused on the Indian Wars and is currently in consideration for screenwriting competitions.”
Prior to being commissioned as a JAG, Gloria served as an Assistant Public Defender in Ocala, Florida, and Miami, Florida. During her four years as a public defender, she represented thousands of indigent clients facing criminal prosecution. Although she is no longer practicing law, Gloria recently completed her Master of Arts in Screenwriting at the Academy of Art University.