by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts, Culture & Media Editor
"If everyone knows, it can’t be a secret." - The Invisible War
“If you could do one thing political this month, go see this film.” These words stay with me in the days following my conversation with producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick about their latest film The Invisible War. For everyone who cares about our military and feels it is our duty to stand up and protect the people that give their lives to protect us, The Invisible War is your call to action.
Winner of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, The Invisible War opens Friday, June 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco, New York and Boston. The film achieves what no government brief or legal document has yet had the power to do. Giving voice to those who have been silenced, The Invisible War tells the stories of victims of the sexual assault and rape epidemic in the U.S. military, and what the military has done for decades to ignore, deny, and perpetuate these crimes.
Between Department of Defense statistics like “over 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving,” and the powerful words of the survivors featured in the film, the viewer is left reeling by the system’s injustice. It is the voices of the victims that provide us with the courage to end the silence.
Because of The Invisible War, sexual assault in the military is no longer a secret. It is now the government’s responsibility, and our responsibility as citizens of the United States, to do something about it.
Moved by Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict’s 2007 Salon.com article “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering were surprised to discover that no feature film had been made on a subject affecting so many. The extent of the problem, the psychological damage of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and the active cover-up by the U.S. Military prompted Ziering and Dick to make The Invisible War.
From the beginning the filmmakers chose not to make an anti-war film. According to Ziering, “Every woman I talked to said they did not want to participate if it was anti-military and we wanted to honor that.” The filmmakers also understood “that if the arguments were to be heard, we didn’t want the military to feel it was on the defensive or under attack. That was a conscious effort on our part, which we see has really paid off.”
The initial challenge was finding survivors willing to talk. Women who have been raped in the military have a higher Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rate than men in combat. They suffer from agoraphobia, alienation, and depression. Dick explains, “Oftentimes they are ashamed and understandably very fearful to come forward because when they did report in the military, the military turned on them.”
The filmmakers worked through therapists, attorneys, victim’s advocates, and VA centers to locate survivors; but their most successful effort, which took place over the course of a year, was through the Internet and social media. “On almost a daily basis we would Google search and look at Facebook and see if there were conversations about the subject of rape in the military and perhaps there [was] a post by someone sort of obliquely saying, ‘I was in the military, I know what you are talking about.’” Ziering would then make contact, and as Dick explains, “more often than not, they would end up telling a very tragic story about being assaulted in the military.”
When Ziering and Dick had about 20 to 25 potential subjects for the film, they took a road trip across country, beginning in New York and ending up in Los Angeles. Over a ten-day period they interviewed two or three people a day. “We would go into their homes and Amy [Ziering] would do the interview. I would shoot. These are people that many times had never spoken about this to anybody at all, so it was a very emotional experience each time."
The interview process helped the filmmakers understand the issue from a personal perspective and provided “the real drive to make this film - a film that would let the public know this was happening [and] would help change policy so that tens of thousands of women and men who are serving right now would not be assaulted.”
What results is a film illustrating an unforgettable pattern of events unimaginable to the civilian eye. Men and women alike share the experience of loving the military, being assaulted by fellow servicemen, and then ostracized, criminalized, and abandoned for trying to get help.
Juxtaposed against the powerful narratives of these survivors are interviews with Department of Defense officials, experts, members of Congress and retired military. After witnessing the survivors’ heartbreaking accounts, it is shocking to see the issue so blatantly denied by high-level U.S. military officials.
After Sundance, the filmmakers undertook a strategic series of what they call “grasstops” (as distinct from “grassroots”) screenings for high-level government officials. “What the film did,” Ziering explains, “was give people a roadmap that hasn’t been available before.” The Invisible War brings a new level of awareness that rape and sexual harassment in the U.S. military is a “chronic condition.” Generals have said, “You know, [the film] helped me so much more than a briefing paper… I get it now.”
The response to the film by the U.S. government is notable. At a press conference in April, Secretary Panetta called for some significant changes to policy. As one of the film’s executive producers Jennifer Siebel Newsom told Kirby Dick, “Secretary Panetta was very happy that she made the movie, very moved and actually shocked by it, and communicated to her that he called that press conference in part because the film had made such a great impact on him.”
But in order for sexual harassment and rape in the U.S. military to stop, policy changes must occur in the highest levels of government and the military. “Until the military goes after these serial perpetrators that are operating within it’s ranks with the same will that fights a war… until it goes after them and investigates, prosecutes and incarcerates them - it will continue to have these problems,” says Dick.
So what can we do?
Ziering hopes that rape and sexual assault in the military will be “drastically and dramatically taken on.” Watching this film “is an act of change” Ziering explains, and will send the message to Congress “we care about this issue.”
The filmmakers have started a movement called Invisible No More. The website provides tools on how to get involved, encourage others to become involved, and get the film released in cities across the country. -Ed.
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP's Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.