The numbers astounded them. In 2007, the Oscar-nominated documentary maker Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith) and his producing partner, Amy Ziering, read an article on Salon.com called The Private War of Women Soldiers, by Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict, about the high incidence of rape and sexual assault within the U.S. military. It was so damning that the duo did further research, and their shock grew.
They found that, since World War Two, an estimated 500,000 U.S. military personnel have suffered a sexual assault or rape. As many of them were men as women. According to estimates, there were 19,300 assaults in 2010 alone. Though women now make up about 15 per cent of the U.S. military, a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. But few of the assaults are reported, and fewer are investigated and prosecuted. In 2011, for example, of the 3,000 or so assaults that were reported, about half were investigated, and only 191 perpetrators were court-martialed.
Dick, a youthful-looking 59, with an uncanny resemblance to Ted Danson or a square-jawed Clark Kent, is a seasoned filmmaker who by then had nine documentaries, one Emmy nomination, and that Oscar nod to his credit. So he was confounded by the information in Benedict's story, and surprised that no one had made a film on the subject.
"We decided then and there to make one," he said while sitting on the sun-soaked veranda of a seaside hotel on Cape Cod during last month's Provincetown Film Festival, where his resulting doc, The Invisible War, was screening. Powered by gut-wrenching interviews with veteran survivors of sexual assault, the film had already won the audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and had been screened for Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, who quickly responded with a press conference promising change. The Invisible War opened in the U.S. in late June, and arrives in Canada Aug. 3.
A typical Dick film combines empathy for victims of powerful organizations, and eagerness to expose those who abuse power. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), he investigated the reclusive members of the Motion Picture Association of America, who punish films they don't approve of with an unduly harsh ratings. In Twist of Faith (2004), he examined sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. "I'm not sure which is more recalcitrant, the Catholic Church or the MPAA," he cracks. "Both are equally secretive. The Catholic Church has had more time [to practice secrecy]. They think in centuries. A few decades of bad publicity is nothing."
"I came out of art school, California Institute of the Arts," he continues, "and I think I really approach these films as art – setting the bar as high as possible, exploring in all directions as much as possible, making it as personal as possible. And not only the final product, but the entire experience of making it."
The Invisible War is in that same tradition. Dick and Ziering undertook a massive search for vets who were willing to speak about their assaults, putting out feelers through victims' advocates, survivor groups, and therapists. They scanned internet chatrooms looking for relevant conversations; they opened a Facebook page inviting volunteers. "I always have faith that we're going to find people, but this was very difficult," Dick says. "Most of these survivors have severe post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, they're agoraphobic. It took quite a while."
Eventually, they did preliminary interviews with 70 victims for several hours each, and then hit the road on a cross-country trip to film 25 of the subjects in their homes. "We work with a very small crew, and Amy did a phenomenal job of creating a safe space," Dick says. "A lot of documentary subjects are uncomfortable when they see themselves on film. It's this doppelganger that only represents a part of them. But these subjects liked it. It was cathartic, it lifted a great weight off them. Many thought the assaults had been their fault. Many came from military families and didn't tell them. Or they told and were discouraged, or experienced reprisals. But we believed them."
Dick found himself tearing up in every interview. "What was odd is, I would hear these stories that I'd heard before, and I would be equally outraged … that it was happening again. We'd come out of the interviews and Amy would be devastated and I'd be enraged. It was a good combination to make a film."
The son of a World War Two navy veteran, Dick was careful not to blame the military itself. "Most men in the military are horrified by this," he says. "Most of these assaults and rapes are committed by serial perpetrators." But he also has no problem with being both a documentarian and an avowed advocate. "It's fictional, this notion of objectivity in films," he says. "Certainly we maintained very high journalistic standards. But I mean, what would be the 'objective' position on rape?"
The good news, he says, is that the military's hierarchical structure can effect change from the top down – "unlike society, where it's much harder to do that. And they've done it before, with racism. It was a huge problem in the military until the 1960s, and they undertook a campaign over a decade, and afterward there was actually less racism in the military than in the civilian world. The fact that racism has declined in society over the last 50 years, I think the military deserves some credit for that. Their soldiers took those values out into society. The same thing can be done with misogyny."
To that end, he's working to get his film seen by as many influential people as possible: high-ranking generals, officers' wives, West Point women's organizations, corporate and non-profit leaders, chiefs of staff, right up to the U.S. President. "Every time I came out of an interview, I said to Amy, 'We're going to do something to change this,'" Dick says. "It was crafted to reach film audiences, and I think it does. But it was equally crafted to reach policy makers." Because he knows change takes time, he's set up a coalition of women's groups, sexual assault groups, veterans groups, and civil rights groups called Invisible No More (with a website, NotInvisible.Org) to continue to push for improvements, and to hold leaders accountable if they don't occur.
Being an advocate isn't easy; Dick has made enemies. At one point, he feared for his safety enough to consult an expert in private security, who told him to shred every document and, when driving, to look in his rearview mirror every 15 seconds. "I forget to," he says, shrugging. But taking a stand "makes the challenge as a filmmaker richer."
Then he grins. "It makes it more fun."