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Originally published Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 3:05 PM

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'The Invisible War' documents startling military sexual assaults

"The Invisible War," a documentary directed by Kirby Dick, is an important eye-opener about the startling amount of sexual abuse that goes on in the military. The film is playing at the Uptown.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Invisible War,' a documentary by Kirby Dick. 95 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Uptown.

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Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" is one of those documentaries that you watch both fascinated and repulsed — and one of those films that you sense just might be instrumental in helping to change an utterly unacceptable status quo.

An exploration of sexual assault in the military, the film begins with one woman telling her story. Then another, and another, and another and more ... from all branches of the military, all geographical areas, all levels of seniority. A few men hesitantly tell their own stories of sexual assault. The numbers (all, the film reminds us, from U.S. government studies) pop on and off the screen, and are staggering: Over 20 percent of female military veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving. Eighty percent of them do not report the crime, often because the person to report to is a friend of the attacker — or the attacker himself. More than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2010 alone. One woman describes reporting an assault, only to be told, "You're the third girl to report rape this week. Is it all a game?"

Dick, whose previous documentaries include examinations of pedophilia in the Catholic Church (the Oscar-nominated "Twist of Faith"), closeted gay politicians ("Outrage") and the mysteries of the movie-rating system ("This Film Is Not Yet Rated"), has an electric story here, and he tells it quietly and calmly. The details pile up: how Kori Cioca, who suffered a broken jaw in a rape by her supervisor, now carries a knife everywhere; how Jessica Hinves' rapist, during the investigation of the crime, was named "Airman of the Year"; how Hannah Sewell's father, wearing his own military uniform, angrily says that his daughter's attack wasn't properly investigated — and that he trusted that she would be safe when she enlisted.

The film isn't without grim-comic relief, in the form of absurd awareness campaigns supposedly intended to solve the problem (a military-produced video smugly reminds female troops not to walk back to their barracks alone — as if that were the real issue). It's also, thankfully, not without hope, as we're told at the end that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — who's seen the film — has begun making changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases. "The Invisible War," winner of the Best Documentary award at the Seattle International Film Festival last month, is an important eye-opener; tough to watch, impossible to forget.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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