by Alan Pyke
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering last teamed up on the documentary DERRIDA about the French literary critic. Their new film, THE INVISIBLE WAR, takes on a harrowing subject. There is an epidemic of sexual assault within our military, perpetrated by a small number of serial rapists and swept under the rug by a chain of command flush with incentives to blame victims and protect abusers. The military is aware of the statistics but intentionally buries its annual report on the subject by releasing it during the holidays each year. The film is devastating and well constructed. BYT sat down to talk with Ziering and Dick about the project.
One thing I’m really curious about, Amy, is you said you interviewed 70-plus survivors – that’s out of how many responses [to your initial call for stories]?
Amy Ziering: Hundreds. We sort of ended up stopping at a certain point when we realized we had enough of a critical mass. And they keep coming in. And it happens at every screening. Someone came up to me, two people, it’s just unbelievable, and what’s interesting is they all, many of them don’t know how pervasive the problem is or thought this had just happened to their sister. Two people at this screening. We’ve never yet not had a screening where someone didn’t say, oh yeah this happened either to me or to a relative, which is incredible.
You’ve said you found yourselves repeatedly coming face to face with people who seemed to think of the incidents that they had experienced or knew about as very isolated.
AZ: Yeah. That was astonishing to me, too. ‘Cause after 20 intakes, I knew a lot, so sometimes I would feed them their answers, not intentionally, but a lot of them were surprised, and that also was instructive to me — “Well how do you know that?” And so I was informing a lot of them.
Kirby Dick: She’d ask a question that you could only know if you, I mean, a question as if she expected a certain kind of response because she’d received that response so many times.
There’s that montage of TV nightly news footage, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, talking about this series of high-profile scandals and talking about them as scandal, and it occurs to me that in the nightly news game that stops being a story in a sense if it’s understood to be a daily occurrence. Are you concerned at all that people will tip too quickly into some sort of sense of being blasé about this, if it stops being scandal and starts being fact of life?
KD: Well, my concern is you’re dealing with the largest institution in the world – I mean the Chinese military’s larger – but certainly the most powerful institution. And even though Secretary Panetta has made these first steps, there is a long way to go. There is not an acknowledgment that they have to go after these serial perpetrators the same way they fight a war. Because these are enemies within. I still get a sense that there’s this attempt at a quote-unquote “cultural change,” and that’s important, but it’s also important to treat these as enemies within. And when the military says y’know, there’s a problem in the civilian world, there’s a problem in the military world and we’re a reflection of the civilian world, that is not taking responsibility. They have control over these people, this is a unique problem, they have to say this is our problem and we’re going to take care of it.
You mentioned dealing with one of the largest institutions in the world and it seems to me you’ve been drawn to secretive institutions in a number of cases in your career. What is it about that that appeals to you as a subject and how was this different or similar to the MPAA, the Catholic church, other very secret, hierarchical institutions that you’ve dealt with?
KD: Well there’s a lot of similarities with the Catholic Church. There were situations with the Catholic Church where it was just completely denied and unacknowledged and the people who came forward and reported this, they experienced reprisals. There were situations where you had priests who had abused multiple people getting protected by bishops. So we certainly saw that in the military, there are similarities. But I mean, part of it is of course it’s very dramatic. Part of it is y’know we work very hard at what we do and take it very seriously and we’re very committed to it, and we want to use film to try to change things. And I mean that was something from the very beginning when we came across this.
First off, we wanted to make people aware. But we also thought that a film delivered just right could actually help to change things. Because we’re making this film for two audiences in a way, we’re making it for a documentary film audience, but we’re also making it for Washington, DC. And I know we all talked about, over and over again, how’s it going to play to both, because we want it to play well to both. And I really think this has sort of shaken Washington, shaken policymakers, and hopefully affecting them positively, in a way that very few documentaries [have]. Very few documentaries since Inconvenient Truth–that’s the last one I can remember that–you make a lot of films, but it’s heartening that this may actually save lives.
Do you think you’ll get follow-through from folks you talked to in Congress and the Pentagon? It seems like what they do when the cameras are off would be a key concern.
AZ: It is, but what we’ve seen is that the film is a game changer, people that come in, politicians, military officials who might have read about this or anecdotally heard about it. No one leaves the theater without an opinion about this issue, or uninformed about it, in a way that I think is astonishing, and also very compelled to feel like, OK, this is super wrong and whatever I do, whatever it might be in whatever way, I will work to make a difference and make a change. So I am quietly optimistic. Y’know, for Leon Panetta to hold a press conference after seeing our film, and we had a Hill screening with 16 senators.
We had a host committee and a standing-room-only Library of Congress screening, and word of mouth spread about that, and we’ve had an invitation to screen at—well, very high levels of places. And so it’s very heartwarming, people want to know about it, and I don’t think they’re shying away from it now. And to use Kirby’s analogy of the Catholic Church, remember when that was just oh it’s just one rogue priest, oh it’s one set of boys here. It’s kind of similar. People didn’t shy away from it, they said oh my god, it’s systemic. That didn’t shut down the news, then the news was like a drumbeat. And so we’re hopeful too that when they say oh my god, these are symptoms, these weren’t isolated situations. So we’re hopeful that it’ll be a change, a sea-change.
Out of the 70+ folks you reached out to speak to, out of the hundreds you received, how did you make the initial choices of those main characters?
AZ: There were a lot of factors. We knew we wanted soldiers who were relatively young, even though this spans decades, because that makes it more immediate and urgent, especially for viewers at the Pentagon, so it’s not “Oh, that happened a while ago, why should we care.” So we knew we had to have a particular, really contemporary urgency. We knew the subjects had to have a certain fiber to sustain the process of being filmed. So a lot of them just weren’t, you just knew from talking to them, they weren’t viable candidates. You had to have stories that were absolutely unimpeachable, that we knew their stories could withstand attack, and we could withstand attack. You couldn’t present just any situations, because unfortunately a lot of them are he-said she-said, a lot of them are commanding officers telling someone to come to their office. There’s no witnesses to that. So there were all different criteria, and then you narrow it down to those people who are to some degree articulate on camera, and who were recovered enough we thought to be strong enough to present their story publicly. We were strategic and we were lucky; it was a combination.
KD: Well I don’t think it was lucky. I mean, this was very deliberate.
AZ: But it all worked out OK. You start out with a person and you don’t know, they might not pull through, that’s what I meant.
You mentioned pushback and having to know the work you’re putting together can withstand attack, and you said just now in there that there’s been less of that than you anticipated, and it seems to me there’s a sort of benign version of that, a skepticism or hostility toward the whole notion you’re trying to document here that was summed up really well in a quote from a column by Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post columnist, that was written right about the time the Salon story and the New York Times story were first published:
“Many men resent women because they’ve been forced to pretend women are equals, and men know they are not. […] The fault lies with the Pentagon and others who have capitulated to feminist pressures to insert women into combat.”
How does that strike you, the notion that this is a natural byproduct of an unnatural arrangement in our military?
AZ: Completely erroneous. Completely fallacious and unfounded. Because statistically men are equally raped as women. It has nothing to do with women being in the military. It is not a byproduct of that. It is completely—there’s no relationship whatsoever. It’s just silly, naïve and uninformed.
KD: And to think that these men, who are trained with such core values, cannot act, are compelled to be criminals around women, is an astonishing concept. I mean it says so little about these men. It shows such disrespect for these men. This is not what it’s about. It’s not about just a man having an urge to assault a woman. These are serial perpetrators who do this again and again, to men and women, who know exactly what they’re doing and set these people up. And in fact, we believe that as more women come into the military the situation will improve, because that’s certainly what happened as more and more African-Americans and other ethnic groups came into the military, that was one of the forces that lowered the racism. So actually it’s better. And the final thing is, I think women bring–certainly the women we interviewed–these are really incredible soldiers. These are people that you want in your military. So it’s hard to imagine a military without them now. Of course we couldn’t fight two wars without the women to begin with. But on all fronts, that’s disrespectful; it’s suggestive that we have a weak military. It’s unsupportable.