Kori Cioca, US Coast Guard in Kirby Dick's 'The Invisible War'
Cinedigm/Docurama Films Kori Cioca, US Coast Guard in Kirby Dick's 'The Invisible War'

Ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" has been an absolute must-see on the festival circuit. Despite its considerably graphic and disturbing narrative -- which details the shocking amount of sexual assault in the U.S. military -- the film has managed to win over audience after audience, including those in Park City, where it picked up Sundance's Audience Award, a prize usually reserved for lighter fare.

That's a testament both to Dick's direction and the film itself, which is meticulously edited and features brave and intimate interviews with dozens of victims -- male and female -- of both sexual assault while working in the military and the remarkable lack of justice that met the perpetrators afterward.

In 2010, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma, and 68,379 had at least one Veterans Health Administration outpatient visit for related conditions. The same year, the Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000. However, these reports only resulted in convictions against 244 perpetrators.

Invisible War Ariana

It's an extraordinary issue that begs considerable policy change in the United States -- and more awareness from the general public. This will hopefully be aided by the film's theatrical release, which begins this Friday in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and DC.

Indiewire sat down with Kirby Dick at the Provincetown International Film Festival last weekend, where he discussed the process of making such an intense piece of work and the surprising response the military and other bodies of authority have already given since the film's debut.

Where did you first come across all this? It's truly a shocking situation and I suspect that, walking into the movie, most folks have no idea rape in the military goes on to this extent.

I read an article and was astounded by the numbers, and just assumed, well, there's gotta be a film on it. So I looked around and realized that there was no feature made on this subject, so i just decided to do it. Initially it had two elements. There was this cover-up by this very powerful institution, and i thought a) it was important to get this story out and b) it makes for a dramatic element to be a film playing that role.

It was around the experiences and the traumas that these woman and men experienced not only when they were assaulted in the military but when they came forward and the military turned on them, so I knew the subjects themselves would be very compelling. From a filmmakers prospective, those two elements convinced me it could be a very powerful film.

Invisible War Hannah
I was really impressed at how many people came forward.  They gave their names and intimately told their stories... It was incredibly brave. 

It was, it was. And obviously the subjects are so important in carrying the film. So what I tried to do was to create as wide of a pool as possible and pick the best from there. They were very hard to find... I remember, the first time we found someone, telling my wife "Hey, we finally got someone who'll talk." In the end, I don't even think we were interviewing them on camera, but we spoke to them, and I just remember saying, we're gonna have a film, we got someone to talk.

How do you go about finding them? That must have been really challenging, at least at first.

Finding them was a challenge.  I reached out to every therapist that we could get ahold of who worked with the survivors of rape in the military.  Attorneys and victim advocates were very important to this too. And of course, the internet.  We'd search for conversations on Facebook or some comment thread regarding this issue, and every so often you'd see someone say, "I was in the military and I know what you're talking about." Then we'd contact them and see if they wanted to speak.  Amy [Ziering, the film's producer] would get them on the phone and tell them we're doing background research.

Invisible War Elle

More often than not, these men and woman have been assaulted, and it would bocame an intake interview that often went on for an hour and even two hours of just hearing these very tragic tales. We built up quite a few, and when we had 20-25 we thought would be potentially good subjects, Amy and I took this trip cross-country interviewing these people. She would interview, and I would shoot.  These pre-interviews that we'd do were extremely affecting experiences for both us. There was no question in my mind after that trip that we were gonna make this film no matter what.

You clearly created very intimate environments for them. The subjects were very open and comfortable and often seemed proud to be part of this project.

Well, I think that's a testament to Amy's interview style. She has this quality of setting up this very safe environment for her subjects. At one point one of the subjects started crying, and she just got up and walked over there and hugged her and said "You're safe, you're safe, no one's gonna hurt you." Afterward, the subject said to her "No one has ever said that to me and no other therapist has ever treated me like that." She had that quality, and at the same time was able to walk them through every step of the assault and the trauma that followed. It was critical to have those details in the film to really convey what's going on, and i think she did a phenomenal job. We also work with really small crews who are very sensitive. It's an intimate experience when i work with people. I like to keep things really small and casual.