Kirby Dick, The Invisible War
Over two decades, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith) has explored edge territory in sex, art, and philosophy with films like Private Practice: The Story of a Sex Surrogate, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, and Derrida, a playful portrait of the impish French poststructuralist thinker riffing on life and language during his tenure in New York City. In recent years, Dick and his producing partner Amy Ziering have zeroed in on institutional power, scrutinizing the hypocrisies and often dangerous doublespeak of powerful, secret-shrouded entities like the MPAA (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) and the Catholic Church (Twist of Faith), as well as closeted Congressional members who use their position to lobby for anti-gay statutes (Outrage). Such concerns find new expression with The Invisible War, a heartbreaking investigation into the systemic rape of servicewomen in the US military, which won the 2012 Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and has been making the festival rounds since its Sundance debut.
After speaking with dozens of active and former service members about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military—there were over 19,000 incidents in 2010 alone, according to government estimates—Dick introduces us to a handful of women willing to share harrowing stories of abuse and the equally traumatizing retaliation they endured for reporting their rape. One interviewee, former Coast Guard enlistee Kori Cioca, has spent two years trying to get the military to cover the exorbitant cost of repairing a jaw injury she suffered at the hands of a particularly violent rapist who happened to be her commanding officer. Another, US Navy seaman Trina McDonald, was repeatedly drugged and raped by a cohort of military police while she was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and, years later, having alighted with a female partner and her two children, continues to suffer destabilizing PTSD. The stories these women tell of being assaulted while on duty or after mandatory socializing with male peers are harrowing enough, but through their exceedingly courageous testimonies–plus interviews with politicians, retired generals, and other experts–the filmmakers reveal how, even after the 1991 Tailhook scandal and documented serial abuse at elite training grounds like Aberdeen, the military brass labors to silence those who speak out, tarnishing them as liars, adulterers, or head cases. While victims are forced to leave a career they once cherished with deep psychic wounds, the assailants are rarely prosecuted or held accountable for their crimes, protected by seemingly immutable chain of command structures and a debased culture of masculine privilege. Citing the Department of Defense’s own distressing statistics—20 percent of women who enter the military are sexually assaulted—The Invisible War reveals how endemic the problem is, and why the shame of it all should shake them to the rafters.
Filmmaker chatted with Dick about the ironies of military justice, how to handle sensitive interviews, and why you can’t go the washroom alone at the Pentagon.
Filmmaker: Why are sexual assaults more prevalent in the military than in the civilian population?
Dick: A number of reasons. According to several studies, a higher percentage of people who [enlist] have attempted or committed rape before entering the military. Likewise — and this isn’t in the film — a higher percentage of people entering the military have been abused and are more likely to be assaulted again. So there’s a perfect storm situation. To be fair, the people who have been abused come into the military looking for a new family, really. That’s one of the positive things the armed services offer. The military also tends to attract aggressive people who may have assaulted [someone] in the past. That’s why this situation is so urgent. Until now, [officials] have said the military just reflects what happens in the civilian world, and they avoided taking responsibility. But they also have more control over their population, so they can do something [about it].
Filmmaker: What’s been the response to the film in Washington?
Dick: The film makes a very powerful impact on everyone who sees it. Now the U.S. Army Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SARP) is beginning to use The Invisible War for training, which we never expected. We think it will not only convey the seriousness of this issue but the importance of respecting women, so we’re pleased. But this film won’t change the nature of serial predators. It might cause them to be a little less active, but only if military officials go after them with the same will with which they fight a war – because they really are the enemy within.
Filmmaker: It’s ironic that they can’t seem to understand how this problem is eating them inside out.
Dick: Yes, partly because institutions tend to cover up a problem rather than address it. That was true even before the Tailhook scandal. And you’re right – it’s devastating to unit cohesion when someone is assaulted. Then those men and women who report [incidents] find themselves forced out. There was a lot of focus on gay translators during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the last several years, and how damaging it was to be losing those men and women. But the numbers they’re losing here are 10 to 20 times as many.
Filmmaker: How did the Department of Defense handle your initial inquiries?
Dick: We said this is an important issue and that we wanted to get their perspective. It took a long time. Most of the time they’re dealing with big studio films, not small documentary crews, but everyone goes through the same small office in Westwood. They take requests and then pass them on to the Pentagon. It was nine months before they said yes. You know, they were very polite, very respectful – we had a minder. If you have to use the bathroom at the Pentagon, someone accompanies you and stands at the door, then escorts you back. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Wow. They aren’t taking any chances.
Dick: At one point they took us on a tour of their media department and each Pentagon anchor — CNN, NBC — had their own office that they’d report out of. They were so proud of this – “Look, all the networks have their representatives in here.” But from my perspective it was kind of horrifying because of course these people aren’t going to be reporting as aggressively — they’re housed and cared for, in a way, inside the Pentagon. It raised questions to my mind, at least from an independent’s perspective.
Filmmaker: Did you encounter people in the military who really wanted to help you out but didn’t want to be identified on camera or otherwise?
Dick: Oh yeah. Quite a few. A lot of people inside the military know this has been a problem for a long time and want to see it change. Most men and commanders are horrified by this epidemic, but the order to change hasn’t come from the top. There’s an entire industry of civilians the military has hired to deal with survivors of sexual assault and to help change the culture within the military. Off camera, they’d often offer a blistering critique of what the military wasn’t doing, or what they were doing wrong.
Filmmaker: Is part of the resistance to change not just the hypermasculine culture and chain-of-command issue, but the fear that any criticism of the military system of justice could be its undoing?
Dick: Yes, absolutely. As our film shows, one of the real problems of getting justice is the unit commander makes the decision to investigate and prosecute sexual assault crimes. That’s a clear conflict of interest most of the time because they know the assailant and they know the victim – in no other justice system would that be allowed. Judges would recuse themselves if they were in that position. The military has fought for a long time to make the unit commander god over the unit, and that’s the way the chain of command all the way up to the Chiefs of Staff were raised. Now, Secretary [Leon] Panetta did make a small but important change where he moved those decisions up to the level of colonel. We know The Invisible War played a role in that change, because Panetta himself told one of our executive producers. But there’s still an opportunity for a conflict of interest.
Filmmaker: How did you establish a bridge of trust with the women who appear in the film telling their stories? How did you convince them that your film would help move everything a step forward?
Dick: A large part of that was my producer Amy Ziering, who did most of the intake interviews with more than 100 survivors and the on-camera interviews. She was able to establish a very caring, almost maternal environment, so these women and men were able to share traumatic stories about events that had shattered their lives. At the same time, she was able to ask deep and probing questions and get into the details of what actually happened. I consider these interviews the soul of the film. An important part of the process was a cross-country road trip we made from New York to Los Angeles. We interviewed two or three people a day. It was very powerful – you’d meet people and a half hour later they were telling us things they’d never told the people closest to them. Kori, for instance – and you see this in the film – it takes 30 seconds for her to get out the words “He raped me.” That’s because that’s the first time she’d ever said it to anyone, including her husband, who’s in the next room. She hadn’t told him – and they’re very close – or her mother because she wanted to protect them.
Filmmaker: Kori Cioca’s story is especially hard to shake. And she let you into her home and life so you could get an even more intimate glimpse of how it was affecting her life and marriage.
Dick: Sometimes you make films about subjects and you don’t necessarily click with them. Kori and Rob were very open and willing to share their experience. At the same time, it was fun to hang out with them. I think people who have been in the military are more highly socialized. They have more social skills, charm, there’s more joking and banter. It goes against the stereotype in a way but I really think they are more sophisticated socially. When you sit around a group of veterans and they’re relaxed, the signals and jokes going back and forth … there’s a lot going on. I think it’s because they’re used to being together 24/7 and you have to develop that kind of communication.
Filmmaker: Of the politicians you interview for The Invisible War, all are state representatives. Are senators reluctant to speak out about this issue?
Dick: They have broader constituencies, so perhaps they need to be more careful about criticizing the military. But that’s changing. When we had our first screening on Capitol Hill after Sundance, I think we had 16 senators who were co-hosts for the evening. The fact that the film opened and there was no pushback from the military provided an opening for politicians to move forward on the issue. We were very careful to make it bipartisan and not anti-military, partially because our subjects asked us not to. But we also didn’t want the military to reject it out of hand – the objective was to change policy.
Filmmaker: It seems with the last few films you have developed an interest in institutional failings. Have your priorities shifted since Sick and Derrida and that period in your work?
Dick: Certainly taking on an institution adds a level of challenge to filmmaking. So I would say yes. I don’t know if all my future films will be about that, but it’s one of the things I look for. I think it started with Twist of Faith, which began as more of a psychological piece. I was interested in someone who had been sexually abused [by a priest] and chose to remain Catholic. But it became a critique of the Church’s response as well, so that’s where the shift happened and brought that dynamic into my work.
Filmmaker: What do you like about working as a twosome with Amy Ziering?
Dick: In many ways the day-to-day is a threesome, if you will, because Tanner Barklow, the other producer, works behind the scenes. I prefer working with a small team of people and going back to them again and again. You can get a lot more done by limiting the number of people who are making the film. It’s much easier to say, “We’re going to change direction.” When you have a small group of experienced people, you can do that. Amy is fantastic to work with – she’s very much a creator of this alongside me.
Filmmaker: It seems in documentary there are a lot of nonfamilial pairs sharing directing duties.
Dick: There’s less a sense of hierarchy in documentary than there is in features. The concept of “director as God” – or “unit commander,” if you will [Laughs] – is excessive in features, because it’s not really true. Most of the time, the director is the least experienced person on the set. So I think that’s a skewed concept. When you’re interacting with subjects, it’s good to have two people handling that. You’re asking them to do a lot – and we continually need to remind ourselves of this – there’s no roadmap to being in a documentary film. You don’t know how your friends and family or the public will react to [how you appear]. Also, there’s a lot of risk, a lot of legal risk [for filmmakers] – making documentaries is a very risky business. On the production side, you’re working more without a net in documentary.