Aside from having the greatest name in the documentary business, Kirby Dick is a filmmaker who likes to get his hands dirty. Leave it to others to make films about dance troupes, successful charities, or Elmo. Dick takes on themes that will get him in trouble and creates insightful work that others may have simply milked for easy controversy-baiting notoriety. He received his first round of major critical attention with Sick: The Life And Dead Of Bob Flanagan, Supermosochist (the title kind of says it all), baited the MPAA with the hilarious This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and most recently uncovered closeted politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation in Outrage.
Now he’s back with possibly his most affecting movie to date, The Invisible War. The shocking, sobering film is about the almost unbelievable epidemic of rape between soldiers into the US military and the incredible lengths the institution will go to not only cover it up, but deny any rights or benefits to the victims. The film should be required viewing and despite the inevitable controversies it slips into Canadian theaters this week. We got a chance to speak with Dick about the film during an appearance in Toronto for Hot Docs and he unsurprisingly had quite a bit to say about his powerful new documentary.
Dork Shelf: How did you discover this issue and what led you to make the film?
Kirby Dick: Well, my producer Amy Ziering and I read an article and we were astounded by the numbers and the percentage of women and men who were victims of rape in the military. I actually didn’t believe it at first. I had to corroborate it. Then we looked into seeing if a film had been made on the subject and was in some ways even more astounded that even though this issue that has been going on for 75 years, there had been no film on the subject. So we set out to make it. That’s very rare to come across a subject where no feature film had been made and not only that, there had been no comprehensive book written.
DS: I was very surprised by that as well, was it just the one article that existed? Had there been many news reports or anything?
KD: There’s been news reports over the years, certainly. The New York Times has done a number of excellent pieces. There have been some books accounting experiences either as part of biographies or mentioned it in part. But there hasn’t been a book that not only looked at the individual experiences of men and women who were assaulted, but also why the system as a whole allowed this to happen.
So, there was a great deal of research. The military kept this covered up for 75 years and part of it is because in the United States, it’s the dominant institution. One of the things it teaches people in the military is pride in the military and what goes along with that is a real desire to not discuss any problems in the military, even when they leave. So it was a challenge to uncover. Obviously people in the military know this is going on and it’s a real problem. It took a long time to get people to talk. Then as far as the survivors go, it was a whole other issue for them because they are so traumatized by this experience, by not only being raped but being turned on when they had the courage to report. They have incredible PTSD, they are very agoraphobic, and they blame themselves. There is a real reluctance to speak because the last time they spoke, it destroyed their lives. So it took a long time, but we were able to find the subjects. We ended up talking to well over 100 survivors and probable interviewed well over 30 or 40.
DS: It seemed like once you were able to ingratiate yourself with them they. really opened up to an incredible degree. Almost like they’d been waiting for this opportunity.
KD: Yeah, what happened was that for a lot of these people, for Amy and I to go into their home and say, “Look, we believe you. We understand what you’re going through and want to tell your story” really touched them, I think. But it was very difficult to even do these interviews because in many of these cases they had never told anyone these stories. In the cause of Kori Cioca, she had never even told her husband Rob that she was raped. She only told him that she was assaulted. So in the middle of the interview she started breaking down and saying, “I’m sorry, this is really hard for me to say because Rob is in the next room and he doesn’t even know.” For all of them, I think it was a turning point. They have all subsequently said how much it meant to tell someone their story who believed them. In a way, it gave their experience a purpose because they all said they wanted to do this so that it didn’t happen to other people. Also, several of the spouses came up to me and said, “Thank you for making this film. Your film save our marriage because I didn’t understand what my wife had been through. She may have told me, but to now see it as part of this film as a whole really gave me perspective.” It’s a vast problem and I think this gave them some clarity.
DS: Was it particularly difficult to track down male victims? They aren’t nearly as widely represented in the film even though it’s happening quite often?
KD: Very difficult, very difficult. Because for them the shame is much greater. Even though the film focuses on it, there is still a lot more reporting and even another feature film that could be made on that specifically. I don’t think there’s any question. There’s a great deal that could be done looking at that solely from the perspective of male survivors.
DS: How were you even able to make initial contact with these people given the great lengths that have been taken to keep it hidden?
KD: We went through many different routes. It’s interesting… there is a group of women and I think one man who are survivors of rape in the military who have then become advocates for these men and women. They’re doing it totally for free. They’re just there as a phone number. They work not only to help with legal claims, they talk people down from suicide, they get them off drugs. One of them that’s in our film would just take people in. So over the years, they developed this huge database of people that they selectively reached out to. It’s a really sad state of affairs when not only the military not taking care of this issue but it felt like there weren’t even mainstream non-profit organizations there. This is an issue that has been completely left untreated. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is help to build a coalition of non-profits who now that they’ve seen the film will be aware of how important their involvement can be and they will be there after the film is gone.
DS: How difficult was it to get the few voices of military representatives in the film at all given the lengths they go to avoid discussing this issue altogether?
KD: Well, it took a while to get into the Pentagon. They finally did arrange for the interviews. They were really nice about it, curious, professional, everything like that. When we interviewed them, these are well meaning people. These are people who do not want these assaults to be happening, but they are also people who are somewhat clueless about the personal consequences. When we spoke to Mary Kay Hertog from SAPRO (the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention And Response Office), we asked if she had ever sat down face to face and spoken with a survivor. She said no. That changes everything. I think what’s happened now is that for so many of these high ranking officers in the military, they’ve heard the statistics and kind of get the sense that there is a problem, but their attitude is, “we have a war to fight, we can’t really be bothered with this.” I think now because the film been circulating in the department of defense, when officers see this it really changes their perspective. They realize how damaged these incredible soldiers are and I think it causes them to do a 180 on this issue.
In fact, I think the film has already played a huge role in changing policies. Last week the Secretary of Defense announced that commanders would no longer have the right to decide to prosecute, that right would be moved up the chain of command and the colonel would decide. That’s still internal, there’s still a conflict of interest, it’s not taken outside the chain of command, its not even high enough up the chain of command for there to be an appropriate level of separation, but it’s a first step. It’s the most important step in addressing what is in many ways one of the central problems in the military that has even been done. I think the film had a lot to do with that. These ideas have been around for a long time, it’s an obvious solution. But there was no reason for the administration to act right now. Congress was not going to pass a new law. They’re in an election year. They just aren’t going to weigh in on this right now. I think it’s because Obama is running on women’s issues and he saw that it would be problematic if he came out advocating for women if the women in his military were not adequately protected. So by making this policy change ahead of the release of the film, if and when he’s asked about the press about this, he can point back to this change. Also, he just spoke yesterday and I’d have to check on this, but I think it’s the first time the president has ever spoken publicly on this subject.
DS: The studies and statistics that you reference in the film are remarkable and deeply disturbing. What’s most unsettling is how naïve everyone you spoke to in the military were regarding those numbers. Were those not internal studies? I just can’t imagine how they were possibly unaware of the numbers that you could throw at them.
KD: Well, the most extensive studies were done on navy recruits. They are very comprehensive and there are about 7 or 8 of them. The two star Navy admirable in our film was aware of those studies. But others within the Pentagon were not. I was really surprised by that. I don’t know if I have ever seen those studies referenced before, even though they are out there, in all of the articles and writing on this that I found. So again, it just shows the extent of the cover up. They have the statistics, which are incendiary and important for the public to know if you are going to address the problem properly and there was no attempt to make this material public whatsoever.
DS: I was surprised to see that you’ve actually toured around to various film festivals with some of the victims from the film and I was curious what that experience has been like, even for them to watch the film?
KD: The other day we screened the film in LA and one of the subjects was there and saw the film for the first time. Then we introduced her and she received a standing ovation and she was crying. You know, this was a woman who when we interviewed her seemed so alone and so isolated because she had gone into the military, loved the military and then they turned on her when she reported what happened and had to leave the military in under 2 years, so she didn’t even get any of the psychological benefits that she could get. Her life has fallen apart and struggled with all kinds of things. I remember walking out of the interview just thinking of how alone she seemed. So I think that experience of having a full audience applaud her was so meaningful to her. It made her realize that everything she’s been through is now making an impact.
DS: Has that kind of reception helped in any way with the lawsuit you depicted in the movie?
KD: Susan Berg is an amazing attorney and her strategy is to introduce different lawsuits into different jurisdictions. She’s done two more sine the film actually, with the hope that one judge will be responsive enough to move ahead with the trial. Once that happens all this information can come in that everyone knows, but once it’s in the legal system, it has a different weight to it. Her objective is to get it up to the Supreme Court. The film absolutely helps because there’s no question that the perceptive of the public on issues like this do influence judge’s positions, especially when there’s a clear right and wrong. She felt that the film is going to be the thing that has the biggest impact on this issue.
DS: Very surprised that you were able to get the locations and military victims of some of the rapists. How were you able to get that?
KD: We did a lot of searching to get this information. This is the kind of information that the public should know. Most rapes in civilian society and in the military are serial perpetrators. In the military you have a small, but significant portion of men causing well over 90% of the rapes and sexual assaults. These are people who are predators and that information should be available.