Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" has snagged one of the coveted five competing spots for the Academy's Best Documentary Oscar, and will be released January 18 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and at Laemmle's Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont theaters January 19.
The director has made a name for himself by writing and directing documentaries that challenge powerful institutions, from the Catholic Church (Oscar-nominated "Twist of Faith") to the MPAA Ratings Board ("This Film Is Not Yet Rated"). Most filmmakers hope that their movies will be seen, talked about, make money, earn awards, and maybe have some influence on the culture at large. With "The Invisible War," Dick and producer Amy Ziering set their sights on reforming the U.S. Military. They were determined to shake things and up and push for change, because to allow what is happening to continue is intolerable, unthinkable. "Invisible War" is now out on DVD/VOD. And received a coveted IDA best doc feature nomination on its road to Oscar after garnering itself several festival awards, including Sundace's Audience Award for Best Doc.
Before he started "The Invisible War," Dick was astonished that nobody had made a movie about the shocking scale of male and female rapes in the military—a consistent, unchanging 19,000 a year, about 80% not reported. Twenty percent of all servicewomen have been assaulted while serving, often by serial predators; estimates are that 500,000 people have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military. Prosecution rates are low: less than 21% of reported cases went to trial in 2010. Of 529 alleged perpetrators, only 53% were convicted. Plus, there is no sex offender registry in the military.
Dick soon realized that no one seemed to know what was going on due to the gulf between America's military culture and the rest of the country: never the twain shall meet. That was why the liberal intelligentsia–the sort of people who make documentaries–didn't know what was happening. The CBC, ITVS and Canal Plus came in to back the film, along with Maria Cuomo Cole and other non-profit donors. But not as many as Dick had expected.
"I had hoped that the movie would bring veterans and feminists together, two constituencies that are not seen as alligned," says Dick, who did not marshall support from either until long after he had spent a year criss-crossing the country shooting interviews–mostly conducted by Ziering. Many of the victims were talking about their rapes for the first time. "You just decide you are going to make this film," says Dick, "and somehow it's going to work out in the end. It's harder to find a really good subject for a film than it is to find money."
The question was whether the film could ignite change in the Obama adminstration. "Would they step up and make substantial changes?" Dick asked. A hit at January's Sundance Film Festival, where the doc was acquired by Cinedigm, which released the film this summer to qualify for the Oscar (it will air on ITVS next spring), "The Invisible War" puts a human face on rape in the military, showing how upstanding, idealistic young women patriotically chose to serve their country, only to be rewarded with humiliating and traumatic violence that ruined their lives. Trina McDonald, a US Navy Seaman, was horrifyingly trapped in isolated Alaska with no support in a life-threatening situation. U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca was beat up, suffering an injury to her jaw that has yet to stop producing pain.
But change is coming. After Sundance, the filmmakers undertook a massive screening campaign for influencers around the country, especially Washington, D.C., media, major non-profits, retried generals, the Department of Defense, and the Obama administration. Eventually a screener of the film got to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, although not directly from the filmmakers.
According to Dick, soon after Panetta saw the film he held an April press conference laying out planned changes in the rules governing sexual assault in the military: commanders would pass investigations to an outside, higher-ranked colonel or captain, moving the prosecution up the level of command; each armed forces branch would have a Special Victims Unit, and more prosecutions would be pursued. At the White House Correspondents dinner, Panetta thanked executive producer Jennifer Siebil Newsom (wife of California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom) for making the film and said he was moved by it.
Dick is "cautiously optimistic. These first steps will lead to improvements." But having investigations stay within the chain of command still leaves open the potential for conflicts of interest, he says. And some of Panetta's proposals still have to be ratified in Congress: "It's a start. We advocate that people have to be moved outside chain of command so an arbiter makes the decision to investigate or prosecute, as is done in all civilian systems."
Having seen the film, at a July 25 joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs Committees, Massachusetts Representative Niki Tsongas (see tweet) brought up "The Invisible War" to Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (video below), who had seen it the day before. In the hearing she told Shinseki she was "heartened" by his interest in the film, and remarked how the film "painfully highlights" the bureaucratic hurdles that survivors of sexual assault have endure to get their proper benefits.
Showing the film seems to have an effect. To keep applying pressure on the government, the filmmakers have pulled together splinter groups — sexual assault, veterans, human rights, and Protect Our Defenders–into an umbrella coalition called Invisible No More. A May screening of the film at an Armed Forces Sexual Harrassment/Assault Prevention Summit had a significant impact, says Dick. "We heard immediately that people wanted to order the film, the Army itself seems very proactive on using this film, ordered it for a number of bases, scheduled dozens of screenings at military establishments. We expect hundreds over the next year."
While Dick was prepared for some real resistance or counterattack from the military establishment, "in fact that has not happened," he says. "They've been receptive in using the film in training." That's because the film helps to put a human face on the suffering these attacks cause, and the lmited tools available for people dealing with sexual assault. "People on the ground know it's a problem and are doing everything they can to address the problem with tools that are ineffectual," says Dick. "They're glad to get hold of the film, to show exactly what happens." Seeing the film, in other words, hits you in the gut in a way that reading clinical reports simply does not.
"The Invisible War" is in theaters around the country; it should come out on iTunes this fall, followed by VOD (October 23). ITVS is scheduled to show the film as part of its Independent Lens series over Memorial Day 2013.