Letter Received

By Jonathan HahnJune 22, 2012

Letter Received
THERE ARE SOME WORKS OF WRITING or painting, speech, or film that do more than just stand as great works of art. They change things. They put before us something fundamentally wrong with the world — with the society we take for granted, with the institutions on which we depend and that in turn depend on us — and demand change.The Invisible War belongs in that pantheon, and is easily one of the most important films of the year.

Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have delivered an open letter to the military that manages to balance journalism with rage, patriotism with disillusionment in a methodical, carefully crafted narrative form. The Invisible War exposes a rampant and ignored crisis of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military that has reached epidemic proportions. Watching the film is an exercise in outrage, as we discover the crisis very much the way the filmmakers did: shocked at its proportion, disgusted at the culture of institutional secrecy that, in an undeniable parallel with the Catholic Church, works to conceal and cover it up. While that culture has succeeded in protecting the institution, as well as the perpetrators of these crimes, it has left behind generations of women and men who entered the military as patriots to their country, only to find themselves not just traumatized but abandoned, even vilified.

The film, while not anti-military, was made in part to change its culture of silence around sexual assault and upend policies long in place that have contributed to the crisis. Remarkably, it has already led to real change. Members of Congress attended the film’s award-winning debut at Sundance. Sixteen Senators and eight members of Congress attended a screening on the Hill, and Representative Mike Turner is hosting a second. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta held a press conference in which he announced that the decision to investigate and prosecute sexual assault crimes will be elevated from the level of unit commander to the level of colonel; soldiers who report and fear for their safety may now request a transfer to another unit. These are small steps, but an important beginning the film has made possible.

I sat down with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering following the screening of the film in Los Angeles on June 11. The Invisible War opens in select cities nationwide today.


Jonathan Hahn: Amy, tell us about where you’re from, where you were born and raised.

Amy Ziering: I was born in Massachusetts, but then moved to Los Angeles when I was six. I then went back east for school and ended up living there until I was 30 before moving back again to L.A., so I guess I’m a hybrid. My background is pretty much academic. I was in a Ph.D program in Yale for comparative literature, but I was really into philosophy and literary theory. That was my specialty. Particularly, Continental Philosophy. I never really liked that word, but I was very attracted to that field of philosophy for its political dimensions. That led me to want to make a film about a philosopher I was working with at Yale, Jacques Derrida, who is known for coining the term “deconstruction.” It was my interest in his work, and wanting to document it for posterity,  that led me into actual filmmaking. I wasn't terribly interested in being a filmmaker, per se. But I was a political activist, and committed to literary and political theory. I ended up making the film Derrida, and meeting Kirby [Dick] while making that film. From then on I sort of morphed from being a hard-core academic to a filmmaker.

I think I’m attracted to trauma and its complications because my father was a holocaust survivor and I’m second generation. For me, theory, including Freud and Lacan, gave me perspective on trauma and working through it.

JH: That makes a lot of sense, because for holocaust survivors, the trauma is carried forward in the generations that follow.

AZ: Absolutely.

JH: And a lot of what you’re dealing with in your work seems to be about not just individual trauma, but the way in which trauma has a chain reaction through the family, through the community, through the institution.

AZ: Right. Even if you don’t directly experience the event, the event works through you in profound ways. I think that’s something that is in all the films we do in some way.

The bar’s pretty high: there’s a real fierce political and intellectual ambition in all our films. A certain rigor and commitment to social justice. My interest in Derrida was definitely social justice, and also feminism and gender politics. I think that’s a thread in all our films, such as Outrage and Invisible War. Trauma and secrecy too are really interesting theoretical topos and very much things I continually work through in all our projects.

JH: I’m curious about your motivation to make a film about Jacques Derrida. You must’ve felt there was a story there that hadn’t been told about this particular philosopher that you wanted to tell.

AZ: There were three reasons. The first was simply because I was so interested in philosophy, if I had the opportunity to watch a film on Nietzsche or Heidegger, Plato or Aristotle, that would be a dream. So I didn’t want him to exist without that kind of document. That's how I pitched it. He initially refused to do the film, and I eventually said: “Look, tell me the truth, if there was a film on Nietzsche you know you would watch that film, you would be grateful it had been made.” He said, “Don’t flatter me, I’m not on the same level.” But that was the basic reason I wanted to make that film. The more profound reason to make the film was the exciting intellectual challenge of it. If you’re working with someone at that level, your game has to be pretty high. Then in the making of the film, what was most exciting is that there was no road map for it. How do you translate something that is so seemingly esoteric and abstract and do it justice, and still make a film that is accessible in some way on all levels? That was a cool challenge.

JH: One of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed was just seeing him in his home, talking with his wife in the morning, making toast – just being in the every day. You mentioned Heidegger and Nietzsche. They are these powerful philosophical names, but you don’t always know what makes them who they are as everyday human beings. Heidegger, for example, would go out into the countryside and drink wine with the local people, often drawing on those experiences for his theories. So your film is a real opportunity to put the man in front of people so they could see what he was like on a day-to-day basis.

AZ: Yes, and also, what the film plays with is his work around biography: our desire to know, and the resistance to actually know. What’s interesting about watching Derrida now for me is, it was before there was reality TV. So it’s interesting, because the footage now might seem banal, but back then, it wasn’t commonplace to have that kind of footage of anybody.

JH: What was the one thing about Derrida that completely surprised you that you never would’ve known if you hadn’t made that film?

AZ: I was surprised by and respected his ability to maintain his pedagogical rigor throughout the whole process. He never let down his guard or his sense of responsibility to the work in the whole process, which I’d really never seen with a film subject. He was very controlling and resistant. He would never let you get close. He walked the walk of his theory in the process of being a participant in the film.

JH: That reminds me of a particular moment when you asked him, “What is love.” His focus was just on the fact of the question, which is a very Heideggerian way of approaching anything: Why even ask the question? What’s the context of the question? That’s fascinating from a philosophical point of view, but it also points to a certain wall going up.

AZ: And also a certain integrity. He was never going to let the process not be as reflective of the integrity of his thinking. [Laughing] It was always a teachable moment with him, even after hours of hanging out and shooting.

JH To Kirby Dick: Kirby, talk about your background, including where were you born and raised.

Kirby Dick: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona and grew up in Tucson. I came to Southern California when I was 18 and ended up going to art schools, including the California Institute of the Arts. I moved into film and did my first documentary in 1985, called Private Practices, the story of a sex surrogate. I went to the American Film Institute and made a film called Sick, the life and death of Bob Flanagan, super masochist, which did very well internationally: it won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. I then began making films for HBO and had a number of films at Sundance after that. I made Derrida with Amy. The Invisible War is my 10th feature-length documentary.

JH: What was your family like? Was it a big family? A small family?

KD: I had two brothers. It was a close family. My parents were both teachers, very middle-class, very progressive. One thing I remember which was kind of a turning point for me was in 7th grade. This was probably around 1965. My history teacher gave the class an assignment to take a position in the debate around the Viet Nam War. I came home one day and said to my dad, “Well of course, there’s only one position on this: entering the war is the right thing.” My dad said: “Well you might want to think about it another way,” then sat me down and for an hour walked me through every reason we shouldn't be in the war.

AZ: Wait. It was which war?

KD: The Viet Nam War, 1965.

AZ: [Laughing] And you came home and said it was the right thing?

KD: Yeah, because up until that point I wasn’t paying much attention to politics.  My history teacher was very reactionary, but he did encourage debate. So for the rest of the year I was daily debating him in class about political issues – my teacher taking the conservative position and me taking the progressive position, after being prepped with talking points each evening before by my dad.

JH: Does that stand out for you as a formative moment when you became more politically aware? Those arguments with your teacher?

KD: Yeah, I mean my parents were involved in the grape boycotts being led by Cesar Chavez. There was a lot of that in Arizona. They were involved in a church that was really liberal. Even now, my mother who is in her eighties goes to national conferences for the Methodist Church and is very involved in debates over making the church a reconciling church, which means welcoming gays and lesbians. So there’s no question my parents were very formative in that regard.

JH: Did you get into filmmaking to be a journalist? To investigate issues of a political nature?

KD: No. I was actually much more interested in complex psychological character studies and exploring them with cinéma vérité. I was interested in character studies set in socially controversial subject matter, like sex surrogates. Bob Flanagan for example was an artist with cystic fibrosis who was a very extreme masochist. My focus shifted with Twist of Faith, which was a film I made about clergy sexual abuse. That began as a character study of this one man who was in his thirties and a fireman. He’d been abused in his teens and decided to come forward and sue the church. He was still very much a practicing Catholic. My focus was on how this abuse not only affected him – profoundly affected him— but also his relationship with his wife, his family, his extended family, his church, his community. The more I made the film, a film for HBO, the more political it became, because while it stayed a character study, it also became a strong critique of the Catholic Church. When the film came out it was received in both ways. At that point I decided to make the shift into more investigative journalism and looking to make films that could impact change.

Particularly The Invisible War — in some degree Outrage,— was made for two audiences: for a film audience, but also for policy makers. The film has been described as an advocacy film, and it is, but it’s much more than that. It’s also a piece of journalism, and, even beyond that, it’s in some ways a letter to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I always had that audience in mind when I was making the film. It’s an open letter to them, with the intent of playing a role to help change policy. I think the film has been very successful in positioning them in such a way that they can’t dodge this issue. They can’t deny it: it’s pretty undeniable in the presentation. They can’t accuse us of being anti-military, because the film isn’t anti-military. And yet, they can’t ignore it, because the issue is so incendiary. So, I think the film has kept the pressure on them for quite a few months, which is unusual.

AZ: What’s interesting about it is that it’s not forced that kind of polarized response of “yes” or “no.” They can’t refute, they can’t deny. They have to react. We wanted to make a film that wouldn’t provoke a defensive response.

JH: We’ve talked about Twist of Faith, and of course the Catholic Church did have its moment where there was public outrage, where it was exposed and condemned, and there were lawsuits. There was a public uproar towards its culture of institutional secrecy and cover-up around sexual abuse. But the U.S. military has not experienced that same kind of public outrage. Why do you think that’s the case?

AZ: Because no one has known about it until now.

KD: Right, it’s because no one has known about it. That’s changing as we speak.

AZ: And that’s why they’re reacting to The Invisible War so quickly, to enact changes and preemptively address some of the concerns of the film, so that when it gets more widespread and there’s more awareness, they can actually say they took measures to address this.

JH: Let’s talk about the response to the film. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a press conference on April 16. The big change he announced was moving the process for reporting rape and sexual assault to more senior levels in the chain of command. But it’s still within the chain of command. Isn’t that problematic?

KD: It is. What he’s done is elevate the decision to investigate and prosecute sexual assault crimes from the level of unit commander to the level of colonel. But like you said, the problem is that he’s still kept it within the chain of command. One problem with that is that the colonel may very well know either the assailant or the victim. The colonel may not want an additional sexual assault within his command on record. The change that has to be made is, it has to be moved outside the chain of command so there is an independent arbiter making a decision on how to investigate and how to prosecute.

JH: So why didn’t he take it out of the chain of command? Why is there such resistance to enforcing actual change that would impact the situation?

AZ: There can’t be any threat to authority. The authority of the commander has to be unchecked and unchallenged. Now that makes sense in certain cases: in war you certainly don’t want people second guessing or questioning the command’s decisions. But what we’re trying to point out, and what we hope the military starts to realize, is that it shouldn’t be universally applied. Especially in the cases of sexual assault, it’s good to have oversight.

JH: It does raise the question why the reporting process for the U.S. military can’t be commensurate with that of, say, reporting a sexual assault that takes place within the workplace. In spite of the chain of command within that place of business, it doesn’t apply when there’s a crime alleged: law enforcement gets involved, there’s an impartial body that comes in.

AZ: Right. An impartial body comes in that doesn’t know any of the players or the participants, and can give it the most fair review possible.

JH: Yes, and it’s an interesting parallel with the Catholic Church. There was this sense within the Church that they didn’t need an impartial body to deal with sexual abuse, that they shouldn’t have to report it to the authorities and they can just quietly take care of it on their own. We all know what happened as a result.

KD: Right. The military has, for so long, denied that there is a problem. They’ve blamed the people that have come forward. Or they’ve said it was anomalous, that it happens only at one base or it’s one or two people or whatever. After what happened with the Air Force academy [2003 U.S. Air Force Academy scandal in Colorado] when it finally became clear that they weren’t taking care of it, they said: “Okay, we will, we will now change things.” But it hasn’t changed. In the last two years, by the Department of Defense’s own estimate, more than 19,000 men and women have been assaulted in the U.S. military. There is still an epidemic here, and the military is not taking care of it.

JH: What are the trends. Are those numbers rising or falling? What’s the long-term trend. Do we know?

KD: It’s hard to say. The military is only beginning to do something approaching adequate research on the amount of sexual assaults and where it’s happening. According to their estimates it’s been pretty level for the last five years. But again, it’s hard to even evaluate, because those studies are based on reporting through its own system; this research is not being done by an impartial body. It’s also only based on those people who are actually reporting they’ve been assaulted.

AZ: Eighty percent of sexual assault cases in the U.S. military are not reported. There are two recent studies that show a jump in cases, but as Kirby pointed out, it’s hard to interpret because of the non-reporting issue. So is it really increasing or are more people reporting?

KD: It’s safe to say that the numbers have been fairly constant over the last five years. It’s not decreasing.

JH: The portion of The Invisible War that deals with SAPRO, the military’s sexual assault prevention program, gives one the sense that they are not really interested in understanding the facts of the situation. It seems they are more interested in managing the situation through public relations, brochures, etc.; there’s no think tank within the institution with a mandate to really understand the problem.

AZ: Right. An effective body that would really have teeth. Unfortunately all the money poured into these prevention programs isn’t really doing anything to address the problem or reduce the number of cases. I mean, a bystander program and a buddy program. . .for those to be your big campaigns really doesn’t address the problem. That’s what we hope our film shows. Real prevention is about commanders being held accountable and perpetrators being prosecuted. Until you have SAPRO focusing on that, it’s basically going to be doing a lot of ineffectual work.

KD: SAPRO isn’t even empowered to do that. I think that is the problem. Right now SAPRO’s responsibility is to change the culture, and in some degree, deal with the response to women and men when they come forward and report being assaulted. But they don’t even have a central authority dedicated to looking at the fact that most of these assaults are being committed by serial perpetrators.

AZ: It was just announced [June 13] that the woman in our film, General Mary Kay Hertog, who replaced Kaye Whitley at the head of SAPRO, is being asked to step down. That’s a week before our film was scheduled for release. We talked about measures they’re taking to mitigate the storm that they anticipate happening once the public knows about this crisis. The public at large will know about this. They know about it now because of the Sundance premiere, but even more since then. That’s why I said it positioned them in a way where they have to react. If the person who is replacing General Hertog is better and more credentialed and has a better sense of how to take on the problem, it’ll be a positive measure.

JH: The military has taken other steps to address the problem since the film came out.

KD: Yes, I think the film has played a very significant role in prompting those steps. But they have such a long way to go, and these are only the very first steps.

JH: What remarks has President Obama issued about this specifically since Secretary Panetta gave his press conference?

KD: President Obama issued a statement in support of the changes Panetta announced. And also the Joint Chiefs issued a statement of support, all speaking out on the issue.

JH: Let’s talk about the way in which your work deals with the anatomy of trauma. There’s obviously the provenance of trauma: the traumatic break. But there’s also the way in which an institution tries to deny it and cover it up, which further isolates the traumatic victim and exacerbates the trauma itself. The Invisible War, in addition to some of your other films, seems to be investigating that phenomenon, as well as the ways in which people experience trauma not just as a moment in time, but as a living and lived experience. Talk about why that’s a focus in your work.

KD: Trauma is certainly a focus, and the institutional role in trauma is at play in The Invisible War and Twist of Faith.

AZ: Also Outrage.

KD: That’s true. And also in Sick.

AZ: And in Derrida.

KD: Yes, in his theory, right. So, part of it for me is the same fascination that a novelist might approach trauma. It’s interesting that you are taking a subject in the present, and the subject is moving forward in time, while the investigation is moving back toward the moment of trauma. That kind of double movement that would be fascinating for a novelist is as fascinating for me as a documentary filmmaker.

JH: It’s an interesting point, because your documentaries are a form of journalism, but they are also a form of storytelling. While your role is to investigate a particular subject, it’s also your responsibility to deliver that story in a narrative, and to deploy that narrative like a storyteller. I’m curious about how you balance storytelling and journalism in your work.

KD: It’s an interesting challenge actually. It’s particularly challenging in documentary, because you really have very little time to tell your story. It’s all compacted into an hour and a half, and you don’t even have the luxury of a screenwriter to completely fabricate your story arc. It’s not unlike a nonfiction book, where you have twenty times as many words to tell your story. So, if you look at The Invisible War, there’s a great deal of original investigative journalism in the film, and there certainly was a great deal of investigative journalism done in the process of making the film. What you see is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s really only the most salient bits of information that you have to fit piece by piece into the narrative. For example, one of the things that this film does is quote a statistic from a Navy recruit study where 15 percent of men in this study had either attempted or committed rape before they entered the Navy, which is twice the percentage in the civilian population. That is part of a series of studies that I don’t think had ever been reported on. It’s a seminal series of studies on serial perpetrators in the military. But I wasn’t able to put the whole study in the film. So it’s a real challenge.

AZ: You shoot the footage you know you’re always aiming for, and you try to finesse it and strike that balance. In the shooting process you know what you’re going for. We knew that with Kori [Cioca] we wanted to follow her journey through the VA, and you look for characters that might have a potential arc. In the editorial process, you try to balance it.

JH: It must have taken tremendous research to assemble these people, the men and women featured in this film. This is a two-pronged question: What was the process like to have to do the research to assemble these people, and also, what are the challenges involved in assembling not just subjects for a film, but subjects who are victims of trauma and sexual abuse, which must be a completely different research process based on the sensitivities there.

KD: Getting the subjects was a real challenge. Most men and women that we encountered who have been assaulted in the military, especially those who reported, but even those who didn’t, had very extreme PTSD. They were agoraphobic. They often blamed themselves. So it was a challenge just to find them. What we did is, and this is the way we approach all our films, is to go as wide as we could to find these subjects. We wanted to find as many potential subjects to create a pool to draw from. So we reached out to therapists, attorneys, victim advocates. We posted at vet centers. Sometimes there are sexual assault conferences and we’d go down there looking for people. But I think the most effective tool for us was the Internet. Almost daily we would do Google searches or search Facebook looking for conversation threads around this subject. There might be a series of comments from someone who would say: “I’ve been in the military, I know what you’re talking about.” At that point Amy would reach out through Facebook. As often as not, Amy would get them on the phone and it would turn out they’d been assaulted. Once we had 20 or 25 good subjects, Amy and I made a cross-country trip beginning in New York on the way to Los Angeles visiting them all as we went, interviewing two or three people a day. I would shoot and Amy would do the interviews. Within a half-hour or 45 minutes of first meeting these people, they were telling us about the most traumatic and intense experience of their lives, something that has devastated them and continued to devastate them up until that moment. It was a profound experience for us both. I think it helped set the tone of the entire film. For me, it became the source of the will to make the film, because after every interview I would come out of it just outraged.

Many of those actually, even though they were just pre-interviews, ended up in the film in the short montages that you see. One major subject, Kori, was filmed at that time. That was a situation where Kori had never told anyone that she had been raped before. She had told people she had been sexually assaulted, but not raped. This gets back to the subject of trauma. She had chosen not to tell her husband, who she’s very close to, or her mother, who she’s very close to, because she wanted to protect them from the helplessness that they would feel if they knew about this — the anger and helplessness over the fact that there was nothing they could do, that it was too late. And so, when you see in the film where she takes 30 seconds to get the words out, “I was raped,” that’s because it was the first time she’d actually told that to anybody outside of the court martial process. Those kind of moments were very profound. I know when we were doing that interview, it was shattering: you’re there with this person you just met who is telling you something for the first time…It becomes the moment around which the filmmaking is propelled.

As far as how to deal with subjects who have been traumatized in this way. . .Dealing with subjects is complex enough in any documentary, but when it’s this level of trauma, there’s not only increased responsibility but there’s a greatly increased challenge. Amy was amazing at handling it. When she did the intake interviews on the phone, they would last an hour or two, and she was like a combination of a therapist, a mother and a best friend. She would go into these interviews and they would be intensely emotional. She was very supportive, and I could tell that she was hearing this person break down crying. At the same time she would come back with all the information I’d asked for: How many times had the person been assaulted? Where had she been assaulted? Does she know where the perpetrator is? Because we were very concerned to only focus on cases that we knew were unimpeachable from a journalistic perspective. I was always in awe of the fact that she was able to walk them through this experience, get that information and come out on the end where they are saying: “I want to help you in any way possible. I’m so glad you called.” It would happen over and over and over. At the level of doing the interview, she was able to create a safe space in the personal environment. You know, when you have a camera and a stranger in the room, and the last ten times the person spoke to strangers about [the sexual assault] it rebounded on them with reprisals, you can imagine the sensitivity. The risk that they are taking in talking with us. Amy was able to create a safe space, and yet take them step-by-step through the assault and the psychological trauma that followed in such a way that we got the complete story on camera.

JH: Amy, what was that experience like for you, to be talking to these people and hearing their stories?

AZ: It was very intense. It was a very unique life experience that I’m glad I went through. You’re richer for it, but it’s not easy. I talked to Susan Avila-Smith, one of the advocates, when I started making the project and she said: “You better get yourself a therapist if you’re going to do this.” I sort of heard that and thought, okay, whatever, I’m not going to get a therapist to make a movie. Then I heard it from more people. Then we went to do a 10-day tour talking to 21 different sexual assault survivors, two or three a day. I leapt into that somewhat cavalierly. There were times when I thought I had secondary PTSD as a result of those interviews, where I would act out some of the symptoms. One night at a motel room I was wondering if my door was locked, checking and bolting the windows, worried that it was on the first floor. I had never been like that before. It was as if my body and psyche were responding without me being connected and really understanding it. Then I immediately did things to take care of myself and ground myself, and I didn’t have any issues after that. But that was interesting, to stumble into that and experience it firsthand, and then have to regroup.

JH: We talked about the film going into the anatomy of trauma, and it’s interesting that there is this meta-level of trauma at the level of the making of the film, where there’s a witness trauma that takes place, because you’re so immersed in witnessing their experiences.

AZ: I think that to some degree happens to our audience. Someone e-mailed our publicist and said that he couldn’t stay for the Q&A [after the screening] because he was so upset, and it’s never happened to him before. He was so angry. I think the film does have this real effect.

JH: At the same time, it’s led to some real change. For example, after one of the screenings someone stepped forward to offer to pay for Kori’s health care.

AZ: At the very first screening at Sundance, a man came up to me and said he wanted to take care of Kori, and then another couple overheard and said they were in as well. That was pretty incredible. We’ve actually had that happen now a couple more times, of people wanting to raise money for Kori. It’s pretty amazing and gratifying. It speaks not only to Kori, but also to keeping hope alive in general for the victims. It’s inspiring.

JH: You don’t always see a documentary film have such ramifications in this way, at so many levels: the level of the people being profiled in the film, at the level of the institution being exposed in the film. It’s had a remarkable effect already.

KD: Part of the reason is because this was so covered up and not reported on. When we were making this film, I just remember thinking over and over, I can’t believe that this is the first film on this subject matter. In fact, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t made this film 10 or 20 years ago. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of men and women that have been assaulted. It is possible that it could approach a million since World War II. This is a huge population.

Nearly every time we screen the film, there is somebody in the audience who has been assaulted, or whose child has been assaulted. What happens to these people who are coming forward to talk about their trauma is that oftentimes they felt that what happened to them was somewhat unique. They feel responsible for what happened to them. They often saw it as they made friends with the wrong person, or they shouldn't have been drinking, or they shouldn’t have reported it, people advised them not to but they did because they believed in the military justice system. Then they lose their career and their life is sort of destroyed in many ways, financially and emotionally, and they are just isolated. There are even times where their family will not accept them, because it’s a family who loves the military and will not accept criticism of the military. We've seen this over and over again. Then when they come and see the film they see that no, it is not something they did wrong or some mistake they made. Just the opposite. In most cases they were the victim of a very skilled, very intelligent serial perpetrator that had gotten many other people before them and probably many others after them, and they were the victim of a system that turned on them when they reported. It’s so validating for them, in some ways that therapy can really never do. Therapy works through trauma in a different way. But there’s something about realizing, from one emotional viewing [of the film], that you had blamed yourself for so long for what happened to you, and now, to finally be absolved of that. We had a sense that would happen. It sort of happened on the interview level as well. Again, these people are telling their story for the first time to someone who believes them, and who understands what they’re going through, because we’d interviewed so many other people. They would say what happened to them, and then we’d ask the next four or five follow-up questions, because we knew the common details with so many others. So for all our subjects, the interview itself was very transformative, just in the same way for the audience seeing the film. Not only for the victims, but their spouses as well. Two spouses have said to us that the interviews saved their marriage, and one said that he never really understood the trauma his wife was going through until he saw the film. Because again, he saw it in the context of other people. Obviously trauma, for the person who hasn’t experienced it. . .in some ways it’s impossible to understand it. But when you see it in the context of others, where people are experiencing the same thing and you see the pattern, it’s easier to realize the internal difficulties that these people are having.

JH: It’s a powerful point. When people are dealing with trauma, their behavior may come across to you as individual and uniquely their own, because they’ve individuated the traumatic behavior. But if you start to see it as a shared behavior with those people who shared in that trauma, you understand them in a new way.

KD: Right, exactly.

AZ: What was interesting was that time and again, people would tell us afterwards, “Amy, even if you don’t make the documentary, or even if you make the documentary and I’m not in it, thank you for coming today and talking to me, because no one ever has, no one has ever believed me, you’re the first person to believe me, and you don’t know how much of a difference that’s made.” A lot of them did find the experience of the making of the film and the interviews very helpful, and often we were the first people they had told their stories to. When I was doing these interviews with survivors, I always said to them, “Look, we can stop and start,” and often they would break down. With Kori, after about half-way through the interview she did break down and started crying and we stopped the camera. Intuitively I went up and hugged her, I held her and I said, “You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you anymore. You’re safe here.” She composed herself and went back and wanted to finish the interview. Then at Sundance, we had a talk-back where anyone could come back to talk about the film. Some of the survivors were there and shared their experiences. Kori raised her hand and said, “I just want to say that I remember Amy came to my house and I had never talked about this to anyone, and she held me and said I was safe and no one was going to hurt me anymore. No one had said that to me before. I was trapped in this loop, where no one in the VA or in the therapy I got articulated that.”

JH: The film at one point references Cioca v. Rumsfeld, a lawsuit Kori joined with 17 other survivors of sexual assault alleging constitutional-rights violations, in which the judge dismissed the case citing a Supreme Court decision that seems to position rape as an “occupational hazard” to military duty. That’s pretty shocking.

AZ: The actual wording is that rape is “incident to military service.”

KD: If rape is an occupational hazard, it falls under the Feres doctrine, [which bars service members from collecting damages from the United States Government in the performance of duty] and because of the Supreme Court decision, a lower court can’t overturn that. Just to consider that rape is an occupational hazard is such a staggering thought.

JH: Have other lawsuits been filed around rape cases in the military?

KD: Other lawsuits have been filed that have been turned back because of the Feres doctrine, not only around rape in the military but also around medical malpractice and other issues. I believe this group of plaintiffs may be the largest so far with the intention of changing the law.

JH: Is that the law? That rape in the military is incident to military service?

AZ: It’s the interpretation of the Feres doctrine, which is the interpretation of the Supreme Court of a law that was passed by Congress. Because of this decision by the Supreme Court, multiple lower courts have interpreted it in exactly the same way as this judge did. This judge was sympathetic to the plaintiffs, there was no question about that. He just said he was bound by the Supreme Court decision. So, Susan Burke [attorney representing the plaintiffs] has subsequently filed two other lawsuits [the latest in March], a third in a different jurisdiction, and her objective is to get it before an even more sympathetic judge who will say: “This is such an outrage that in spite of the Supreme Court decision, I’m going to still hear it in my court.” And then of course you have discovery, you have all this information entering the legal system, and the weight of that argument will hopefully push its way up to the Supreme Court, which hopefully will overturn it.

JH: Have any members of Congress responded to this?

AZ: Yes, very strongly. Senator Boxer was at our premier at Sundance. Congresswoman Jackie Spear came, as did Representative Mike Turner. He’s hosting a second screening on the Hill. We had 16 Senators and eight Congresspersons attend the first screening on the Hill, all bipartisan.

JH: Is there any legislation forthcoming to enact real change?

KD: There’s some moving right now. I think this film has given a lot of running room to both critics in Congress and in the Department of Defense. There are a lot of people in government who are very upset by this, and this has given them more room to take action. Here’s another example: each branch of the military has its own SAPRO, and the Army’s SAPRO is called SHARP, the Sexual Harassment and Response Program. Each year they have a conference where they invite top experts in the Army dealing with this issue, therapists, etc. About a month ago they showed The Invisible War there.

JH: It sounds like this letter you’ve written to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff is being delivered after all.

KD: It is being delivered, which is so surprising. Usually these kinds of letters aren’t delivered. I’ll defer to Amy on that one. [Laughing]

JH: For anyone that sees your film and wants to take action and get involved, or offer support in some way to the victims, where should they go for more information?

AZ: They can go to www.notinvisible.org. Invisible No More is the coalition that’s been created to take the message of The Invisible War forward. There are resources there for anyone who wants to take action or get more informed.

KD: Films have their own limited lifespan, and this is an issue that will maybe take five, 10 years longer to change. So the other thing we’ve done is establish a coalition that includes non-profit sexual assault groups, women’s groups, civil rights groups so that together, this coalition will be in place to continue to put pressure on the Department of Defense to make these changes, and if they don’t, to hold the leaders accountable. The film will be an ongoing tool for that coalition as well.

The Invisible War opens today in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Scottsdale, Denver, Chicago, Brookline, Seattle and Tucson. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering will appear at the New York opening at the AMC Village 7. For times and theater locations, go to http://invisiblewarmovie.com/findtheater.cfm

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LARB Contributor

Jonathan Hahn is the managing editor of Sierra Magazine. He is the former executive and politics editor for LARB.


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