Sundance: 'The Invisible War' sheds light on rape in the military
Stunning, muckraking documentaries are a staple at Sundance, but even by the film festival's impressive standards, Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” is exceptional — both for its scandalous nature as well as its emotional impact.
Having its world premiere in Park City, Utah, on Friday night, this investigation of the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military (against both women and men) is such a tragically moving story that even Dick, a veteran Oscar-nominated director (“Twist of Faith”), said the stories he heard were “the most intense series of interviews I have ever been involved with.”
It's not only the number of rapes that take place in the military that is staggering — the film estimates, based on extrapolation of military statistics, that 30% of servicewomen are sexually assaulted during their enlistment and that they are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan than killed by the enemy.
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It’s also the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath uncovered by Dick and his producer, Amy Ziering, an aftermath the director says “can be even more traumatic for men — they really bury this.”
“Both Amy and I cried at just about every interview,” the 59-year-old director says. “We really felt for these women and men.”
When Dick, best known for “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” first read about the military rape situation a few years ago in a magazine, he assumed a film already had been made about it.
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“I was kicking myself, thinking, 'Why didn't I think of this 10 or 15 years ago?’”
When he realized no such film had been done, he said, “I was astounded. What's shocking is how few people are aware of this. It's one of the most under-reported stories of this generation.”
The survivors of these assaults were initially hard to find and, once found, difficult to talk to. “Their symptoms include depression, paranoia and agoraphobia,” the director relates, and this skittishness is visible on film.
Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran who was beaten as well as raped, says she doesn't go anywhere without a crucifix and a knife, explaining, “You always have protection with Jesus, but sometimes you need a little bit more.”
In addition to dealing with such past situations as the 1991 Tailhook scandal, which involved naval pilots who sexually abused female officers at a Las Vegas convention, “The Invisible War” uncovers new and startling stories, such as a wave of harassment and assault at Washington, D.C.'s, Marine Barracks.
“It says a lot that this goes on at the premier Marine base, within a mile of the U.S. Capitol,” Dick said. “These are the people who guard the president; this should have been taken care of right away.”
“The Invisible War” does give time to the military's official spokespeople, who acknowledge the problem and say they are working on it, though a viewing of the film leads to the conclusion that they are not working as hard as they should be.
Though rape and its aftermath are traumatic no matter where they occur, these situations have a special devastation for military personnel: These victims so deeply believed that the military was going to be a protective family that these violations have a quality of incest about them. One of the many tragedies of this story is that these individuals are the truest of true believers whose assaults were, in addition to everything else, the betrayal of a long-held dream of service to the nation.
To a person, Dick says, the people in the film said “they didn't want to be involved if this was going to be antimilitary.”
Not only are the victims routinely not believed, but they are also harassed, ignored and forced out of the service, the filmmaker says.
“You'd hear the same stories over and over, things you almost couldn't believe the first time,” Dick said. “On three separate occasions, women told me they had been raped by a married man and charged with adultery after the investigation.”
The key to the problem, the filmmaker believes, is that the investigation and prosecution of these charges is in the hands of commanders, who as often as not have a vested interest in not following through. Dick says that American allies Canada, Australia and Britain have changed this and that he thinks the U.S. should as well.
“These are very strong women, people you'd want in your foxhole with you,” he said. “We are losing great soldiers.”
-- Kenneth Turan
Photos: Top, a scene from Kirby Dick's documentary movie "The Invisible War." Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival. Bottom: Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times