Ever since Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, the stirring documentary has continued opening people’s eyes, and changing government policies.
The film is such a shocking look at the scourge of sexual abuse in the American military that it drove U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to issue an apology to the countless victims of sexual assault. He also elevated the power of investigation to the level of colonel, essentially taking control from the hands of toothless unit commanders.
Not bad for a little indie movie.
“The film makes a very strong impact on people and I think it’s persuading people that this is an issue that deserves a lot of attention,” says Dick during a recent phone conversation to discuss the documentary. “The real problem though is (whether the government) is going to do enough.”
While the award-winning director is proud of the film’s accomplishments, he does have conflicted feelings about Panetta’s policy changes. Sure it’s a step in the right direction, but Dick insists that female soldiers will be more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than killed by enemy fire unless Panetta moves prosecution “outside the chain of command.”
“Most importantly, they really have to go after these serial perpetrators,” continues Dick, who points out the majority of assaults in the military are committed by a minority of repeat perpetrators that go unprosecuted. “These are really the enemies within. They’re just decimating unit cohesion and, probably annually, causing tens of thousands of good members to leave the service because of these assaults.”
One of the film’s subjects who exited the service after being assaulted, and was left with a painful dislocated jaw, was Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca. As the film shows, Veteran’s Affairs repeatedly turns its back on her when she seeks necessary aid. Her story became the centrepiece of the documentary and was compelling enough that anonymous donors even offered assistance for medical treatment after the screening in Sundance.
“She’s doing very well. She’s scheduled to have that operation I think in the next couple of months,” says Dick about Cioca. “She was a very strong character for a number of reasons. She was someone who was able to be very articulate and analytical about what happened and the problems within the Coast Guard. But she also was able to access her emotions in a very direct way. You both understood on an intellectual level what she went through and you understood on an emotional level and she was able to convey those almost in the same interview bite.”
But Cioca’s isn’t the only shocking and heartbreaking surprise in the movie. Dick also wanted to shed light on the fact that men are victims of sexual abuse in the military as well — an even deeper layer to The Invisible War that reveals, according to a 2009 U.S. study, up to almost 20,000 victims.
“It was extremely important to include men,” insists the filmmaker. “For them I think it’s even more psychologically devastating. It was very difficult for us to find a man because I think it’s a trauma they bury for decades before they’re willing to come forward with it.”
The subject of assault wasn’t foreign to Dick prior to making The Invisible War. An Oscar nominee for Twist of Faith — his 2004 documentary investigating sexual abuses in the Catholic Church — the director doesn’t shy away from taking on “powerful institutions that’s track record for generations has been to deny, cover up and blame the victim.”
“There’s something about (documentaries) that you’re able to strongly make the case intellectually,” says Dick about the power of film. “But also because you are able to come to understand the victim’s experiences, you’re also very emotionally affected. That’s the reason why there’s a number of documentaries that have really impacted the issues that they’ve dealt with. Certainly that’s happened with this film.”