Interview: Kirby Dick Unleashes an Incredible Invisible War

The Invisible War by director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering is simply shocking. In this doc, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January and screened at the recent Provincetown International Film Festival (where it also picked up an audience prize) the filmmaking duo expose a long-brewing scandal in the U.S. military. Sexual assault against both women and men has run rampant throughout the various branches of the military and even up the chain of command. It is, in fact, the chain of command that has, in part, allowed rape and other sexual assault to remain virtually hidden despite its ubiquity. The Invisible War blows the cover off this decades-old (or older) crisis with an emotional and devastating look at the victims of sexual assault and how it can be fixed.

Though the film will be released theatrically this weekend, it has already had a major impact. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta screened the film and soon afterward announced some reforms. Though, as Kirby Dick warns in his interview with ML from the recent Provincetown festival, the moves are not enough and the U.S. military still needs to take some cues from its allies in alleviating this scourge. It may be tough to watch, but the film is riveting and the stories of individuals he and Zeiring interview are phenomenal. Dick has screened the film for various groups since Sundance and its subsequent East Coast premiere at Provincetown and, as he explains in his conversation with ML below, audiences have been riveted by what has been uncovered.

What led you and your producer Amy Ziering to this topic and ultimately doing a film?
Amy and I read an article in by Helen Benedict in Salon and we were astounded by the numbers of people sexually assaulted, and we were equally astounded that nobody had made a feature documentary on this. From a filmmaker point-of-view, that is sort of lucky when that happens. We pretty much decided right then and there that we'd make this film.

I remember hearing about the Tailhook scandal in the '90s when a number of women were assaulted at a U.S. Navy/Marines event in Las Vegas. And despite that, I still thought this was a horrifying yet isolated outrageous incident. I didn't think it was so pervasive...
Yeah, I remember following that situation and the Air Force Academy [situation] and I wondered when I was making this film why I hadn't done this 15 years ago. It seems so isolated, but then it's over - but no, it's systemic. And the military has been very good at conveying that these are isolated. They'll deny it or then blame the victim or they'll say it's been dealt with and it's in the past. This has been covered up for generations.

I would imagine, and I don't have statistical evidence in this, but I would bet it's a part of militaries forever and a problem in foreign militaries that have women or even ones that only have men. And that's one thing we hope that this film will do as it plays around the world, which is to raise the same discussion in those countries as well.

Are these people not able to call the police as civilians do or hopefully do?
If they're in the military it's almost always referred to military authorities. If it happens on base then it automatically is referred to military authorities and if it happens off-base, then yes it is possible to call civilian authorities, but they very often will refer it back to the military.

This must've been a heart-wrenching experience for both of you filming this doc. My mouth was dropping hearing these stories and I couldn't help but talk back to the screen.
Yeah, it was. Each one of these interviews were equally stunning. Amy did each interview and she did a phenomenal job and she'd be emotionally drained and devastated and be incredibly angry afterward. It was a good combination [for the creation of the film] and I knew we'd get it.

The assaults of course were horrifying in and of themselves, but then to see how the institution reacts to these assaults is absolutely incredible.
That's one of the things we hope this film will inspire. Not only the outrage but this sense of responsibility which you're alluding to that we all have in this country. There's a sense that there are military families and non-military families and sometimes people without family members in the military think that they'll simply take care of themselves. We all have responsibility for people in the military. We're all a part of one society whether we agree with what the military is doing or not.

And I've seen this happening. One of the things I foresaw was bring together veterans groups and women's groups. In fact, we've set up a coalition to extend the impact of the film together with civil rights groups and sexual assault groups. And what we want to see happen is a push for reform after the film has gone.

Did you reach out to any of the people who were accused?
We decided not to do that. But what we did try to do is reach out to someone who was convicted. We tried to do that through many defense attorneys. We were interested in getting his perspective. It would be a courageous act for someone to come forward and talk about this, but ultimately we weren't able to get anyone.

Traditionalists may hold all of this up as evidence that women shouldn't serve in the military or that they shouldn't serve alongside men in the military and I was curious what your response is to that?
Well I think first of all, that's holding the men in our military with great disrespect. I believe the men in the military are more than capable of taking care of and not assaulting the people who they serve with side by side.

And in the second place, these women make amazing soldiers. The women in our film are the people you would want in the military. They are so good at what they do and so idealistic. They're model soldiers and that's one of the tragedies. There was this problem with these gay translators being dismissed from the military and that was also a significant loss to the military.

How did you get Leon Panetta to see this?
Well, it was part of a long campaign immediately after Sundance. This movie was made to change policy. We got this into the hands of high ranking retired officers. We had dozens of screenings for officers' wives, non profits, other military organizations and corporate leaders to get the discussion going and not only get the military aware of it, but also to get them to react to it. Eventually, it got to the Defense Secretary who saw the film and two days later held a press conference to announce significant policy changes.

We later learned from our executive producer Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom - and all three know each other - that Jennifer saw Leon Panetta at the White House Correspondence dinner and Panetta told her he was really moved by the film and decided to hold the press conference in part because of the film. So the campaign was successful to that degree. But there's a lot more to do. The changes he announced do not fully take investigation outside the chain of command. It still remains within the chain of command and until that happens, there's still opportunity for great miscarriages of justice. It should be taken out and there should be no opportunity for a conflict of interest. Take it out like it's done in every other justice system.

There are running sexual themes in many of your films including Twist of Faith and Outrage. Is it fair to say you're drawn to topics related to sexual taboo - or maybe not "taboo" exactly but you get what I'm saying...
Maybe not so much taboo, but yes I think there is. On the one hand sexuality is made for the cinema - any sexuality. But I'm also interested in almost all my films about sexuality and its relationship to trauma. Some more than others, but in some ways trauma is playing some sort of role to sexuality. Certainly as a documentary filmmaker I approach this topic similar to a novelist. The sexuality and the traumatic history of a subject makes for great material to work with. I think it's something I work with - not always - but do work with [consistently]."

Has the audience reaction here in Provincetown and at Sundance been what you have expected?
Oh yeah, even more so. I also do these small screenings in various places [between the festivals] and people just wouldn't get up afterward and I've never had that. I saw that they were really affected by this. It's the experience we had when we were doing these interviews. You're like, 'this can't be true.' But at the same time you just want to reach out to them.

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