Q&A: The Man Making the Military Talk About Rape

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Photo: Kevork Djansezian

Documentary films generally aren’t known for dominating the annual Oscar-season buzz, but last week one nominee for Best Feature Documentary was name-checked on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

“I don’t know whether you’ve seen an excellent documentary called The Invisible War ... ” Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal mused during Secretary of Defense hopeful Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing.

“Yes,” Hagel interrupted him to reply, scoring an easy point in an otherwise grueling hearing. Ever since The Invisible War premiered at Sundance in 2012 — where it won the festival’s Audience Award — its title has become shorthand for the epidemic of sexual assault within the military.

“Did you see that?” director Kirby Dick asked the Cut a few days after Hagel’s hearing. One half of The Invisible War team, with producer Amy Ziering (pictured), Dick explained, “Every time attention is paid to this film, things happen. Another senator gets involved.”

Days after seeing The Invisible War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta held a press conference personally apologizing to the estimated 19,000 annual survivors of military sexual assault. Six months later, trials began in the largest military sex abuse scandal in a decade at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. This January, new measures for sexual assault prevention and survivor protection made it into the National Defense Authorization Act. The Cut checked in with Dick, in the throes of his hectic New York–Los Angeles awards season circuit — which now includes stops in Washington, D.C. “Occasionally when I see a member of Congress talking about the military sexual assault, they’ve taken part of a line from the film,” he marveled.

The response to The Invisible War has been extraordinary. Does that mean you’ve had to change hats, switching from filmmaker to activist?
This is the kind of thing you wish for but you’re pragmatic and think no, it’ll never happen. In this case, it’s happening. We hoped the film would have this kind of impact but we never really expected it, and we definitely never expected it this soon. I anticipated a little of this after the release, but I thought it would die down. Actually, it went in the opposite direction. Because we know how far the military has to go, and because our film is the only information out there, and because 19,000 men and women are still sexually assaulted in the military each year, I feel a commitment to this film. The military had covered up so effectively and been so intransigent until now, that while the momentum is here with the film, we’re able to do a lot.

What’s the response like outside of Washington, D.C.?
Almost every week or so we get e-mails from survivors who weren’t able to forgive themselves until they saw the film. Many people who are survivors of rape in the military — and civilians — blame themselves. They think they did something wrong, when in most cases it’s a serial perpetrator. When they see the film, they understand that there are all these other brave, capable men and women like them out there, and they finally let the oftentimes decades-long blaming go away. We have a very active Facebook page as well as a website, Invisible No More. Its the most prominent place where survivors go to interact with others on the issue.

Last month, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey said that lifting the ban on women in combat roles would help undo the “psychology” that led to widespread military sexual assault. What do you think?
Women won’t be second-class citizens anymore, which in the past has made them vulnerable. I think that will reduce harassment. But serial perpetrators are going to continue to operate until the military prosecutes and incarcerates them. Plus, as many or more men are sexually assaulted in the military — this is not an issue of women somehow causing men to become rapists. I think that shows a disrespect for our soldiers — I know most men are horrified by this.

What we have in the military is a small percentage of serial perpetrators that have been allowed to assault again and again and again. People don’t believe that their assailants may be put behind bars, so there’s a very low likelihood that they will even get reported. The rate of prosecution and conviction is so low, most serial perpetrators get off with a slap on the wrist. One perpetrator was given an Airman of the Year award during a rape investigation. It’s really shocking — there’s an attitude within the military that we’re all brothers and sisters, everyone is there to take care of each other. Yet here we have wounded men and women being thrown away in a lot of ways.

Were you satisfied with the new sexual assault guidelines added to the National Defense Authorization Act this year?
It’s only the first step. This is something that’s been going on for generations. It’s time for the military to completely address this problem. Make the decision to investigate and prosecute sexual assault outside of the chain of command.

A lot of the film focuses on the professional retribution survivors face from a commanding officer for reporting their sexual assault — as well as the lengths the military went to cover up the problem. Did they push back at you?
I fully expected the military would react in the same way it reacted to the Tailhook Academy scandal. But they didn’t. For one, I think the film makes such a strong case that to push back would really bring into question their credibility. Plus, the film didn’t put them on the defensive. People are naturally wary of a film bashing the military, but they were reassured by the nature of the film. It’s not an anti-military film. It’s a strong critique of how they handled this issue. It helped that we were able to get people who were formerly in the military justice system to talk about how ineffective it was, people who saw these problems happening again and again.

You’ve been to the Oscars before, when your documentary about sex abuse in the Catholic church, Twist of Faith, was nominated in 2005. What’s that night like for you?
There’s one thing that I think is charming and intelligent about the way it’s planned: After your category comes up, if you don’t win, all the losers seem to find themselves at the bar drinking. Only a few people win, so it’s a very convivial environment, sitting there with all your fellow nominees who didn’t win. In many ways it’s more fun than winning. I suppose that’s a tribute to the Academy — that it’s obviously a lot of anticipation and pressure, and then it’s all over suddenly, but at least you’re at a really good party afterwards even if you lose.

What’s next for you?
I hope I’m not compelled to make another film on the subject. I hope I don’t have to make a sequel. I’m working on a couple other films. The Invisible War producer Amy Ziering and I are taking on some pretty significant institutions. A lot of that I can’t really talk about because we try to stay under the radar.