Director Kirby Dick exposes rape in the military with 'The Invisible War'
Kirby Dick describes the accounts that make up the emotional impact of "The Invisible War," his documentary on rape in the military, opening Friday, July 13, at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
Seattle Times movie critic
Kirby Dick, 'The Invisible War'Opening Friday, July 13, at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. For more information: www.invisiblewarmovie.com
Documentarian Kirby Dick's new film, "The Invisible War," begins with this title card: "All statistics in this film are from U.S. Government Studies." Otherwise, he feared, nobody would believe it.
The film, winner of the Golden Space Needle award for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) last month, is about rape in the military. It opens Friday at the Uptown.
Dick, an Academy Award nominee for "Twist of Faith" (about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church), said that when he first started looking at the numbers, he didn't believe them either. Once he and producer Amy Ziering had corroborated the statistics they found several years ago, "we immediately set out to make a film," he said while in town last month for the film's SIFF premiere.
Nobody had made a feature-length documentary on this subject before; it was something of a carefully guarded secret, kept under wraps through a culture of silence.
Among the numbers included in the film: 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military. In fiscal year 2010, 3,158 sexual assaults were reported in the military, but it is estimated that 80 percent of those attacked do not report; often because the attacker is a superior officer (and may well be the person to whom the attack would be reported). Five percent or fewer of reported offenders are convicted.
In "The Invisible War," many women — and a few men — tell their stories. There's a devastating sameness to the accounts: Many of the survivors say they weren't believed, that they suffered reprisals while their attackers received none, that their accusations weren't taken seriously.
Dick and Ziering found subjects for the film through victim's advocates, through attorneys, through a Facebook page inviting veterans to share their experiences. "A lot of them really hadn't told anybody," said Dick. Michael Matthews, in the film, said that he told nobody of his rape (in 1973, by three fellow Air Force servicemen) for 30 years. When Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca told her story on camera, it was the first time her husband had heard the details of her 2005 rape, which left her with a broken jaw and longtime nerve damage.
Dick noted that the film has strong connections to the Pacific Northwest. Several people seen in the film, including victim advocate Susan Avila-Smith and Army veteran and assault survivor Myla Haider, currently live in the area, and Dick and Ziering held a preproduction retreat on Whidbey Island for many of the film's subjects. (Though Dick wasn't able to include the retreat discussions into the film, he said some will turn up as extras on the eventual DVD.) "There's a very strong network of survivors here; perhaps the strongest network over the last 10 years has been in the Seattle area," he said.
But the film deliberately showcases survivors from all over the country, from all branches of the military. "We wanted to show that this is systemic," he said. "It's not an isolated case, something that happens here or there or at one base. It can only be changed with the Department of Defense approaching it as a systemic problem."
The two-year process of making the film, Dick said, has been "very emotional, but it's also been very fulfilling." He notes that the women and men of the film all spoke of entering the military with idealistic, optimistic views of their future, proud to be serving their country. "They were assaulted, and they still had belief enough in the system to come forward and report it, even though everyone around them is telling them not to. They suffered reprisals and were forced out. And then, when we contacted them and said, 'We want to make a film about this,' they were still idealistic enough to say 'yes, I'll be a part of this, I want to change things.' "
The film is already helping to bring about change: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched "The Invisible War" in April. Two days later, Panetta announced the new rules to handle sexual-assault charges in the military; most notably, that accusations would be handled by senior officers, not unit commanders.
"I've heard that this is something of genuine concern from him," said Dick of Panetta. "It seemed like the film played a large part in actually moving him toward making those changes."
It's an important step, but it's not enough ... not yet. Dick emphasized that "certainly the majority of men in the military" are horrified by the statistics, and are looking to change the pattern. But though we hear talk in the film of awareness campaigns, posters and slogans, "the only thing that's effectively going to deal with this is to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate these people," said Dick of those who commit sexual assault. "It will send a message that if this happens, you're going to end up in prison."
Though still involved in the cause of "The Invisible War" (he's working to set up a coalition of nonprofit organizations to continue to push for changes in how the military deals with sexual assault), Dick will soon move on to another documentary, on a topic that he can't yet name. (His previous films also include "Outrage," about closeted gay politicians who discriminate against homosexuals, and "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," about the MPAA ratings system.) But this one, he says, has stayed with him; it's "emotionally more intense" than any of his other films. "This film is already making an impact," he said, "in a way that very few documentaries do."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org