The Invisible War

by Drew Kerr on May 6, 2012

in Documentaries,Film Festivals,Hot Docs

The Invisible War

The Invisible War (Director: Kirby Dick): Kirby Dick (best known for This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Twist Of Faith, and Outrage) turns his invest­ig­ative lens on the sur­pris­ingly under­re­ported sub­ject of rape, sexual assault, and sexual har­ass­ment in the US mil­itary. “Military Sexual Trauma” (MST), as the US Department of Defense labels it, occurs with such dis­turbing fre­quency that it’s impossible to argue with Dick’s usage of “epi­demic” in describing the problem, which he backs up with plenty of stat­istics. Among the most sobering num­bers (all per­taining to the US mil­itary): approx­im­ately 20% of women serving have been the victim of MST, 80% of vic­tims don’t report the crime, the sexual assault rate in the mil­itary is approx­im­ately double the rate in the civilian world, and less than 10% of MST cases are pro­sec­uted. That last stat forms the basis for one of The Invisible War’s main aims, exposing such an appallingly inef­fec­tual track record by the mil­itary in dealing with the problem that it makes the Catholic church look pos­it­ively pro­active in their hand­ling of pedo­phile priest accusations.

The wealth of power­fully affecting victim inter­views con­ducted by Dick and pro­du­cing partner Amy Ziering reveal a dis­turb­ingly sim­ilar pat­tern: fol­lowing their trau­matic exper­i­ences (many suffered mul­tiple assaults), the vic­tims’ com­plaints aren’t taken ser­i­ously and they receive no justice, leading to the end of their mil­itary careers, rela­tion­ship prob­lems, depres­sion and other med­ical issues, and even­tual sui­cide attempts. MST is an issue that also affects males, as we learn through the story of one rape sur­vivor who kept his secret for 30 years before telling his wife. Dick wisely picks one sub­ject to spend a little more time with in former US Coast Guard seaman Kori Cioca. She suffered irre­par­able damage to her jaw while fighting off her rapist and is shown going up against gov­ern­mental bur­eau­cracy as she tries to get dis­ab­ility bene­fits, dealing with a frus­trat­ingly incom­petent med­ical system (the amount of pain med­ic­a­tion that she’s been pre­scribed is stag­gering), and strug­gling to be a good wife and mother while dealing with the emo­tional toll from her ordeal. One of the film’s most gut-wrenching inter­views comes from the father of one of the vic­tims, as he breaks down while recalling the phone call from his daughter about her rape. Additional helpful per­spective is con­trib­uted by retired mil­itary cap­tain Anu Bhagwati, who heads a sup­port ser­vice for females affected by MST.

Almost as dis­turbing as the horror stories from the vic­tims is the rev­el­a­tion of how the mil­itary fostered such an unsafe envir­on­ment with their apathy, cover-ups, and inad­equate MST pre­vent­ative meas­ures and edu­ca­tion. A couple of inter­views with Kaye Whitley, the former dir­ector of the defense department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, point to some of the prob­lems con­cerning the latter of those. Whitley delivers unin­formed, text­book examples of gov­ern­ment talking head responses to her ques­tions, defending her office’s edu­ca­tional policies that pro­mote ad cam­paigns such as the one that actu­ally said “Don’t risk it — ask her when she’s sober,” as well as others that seem to place an unset­tling amount of blame on the vic­tims (one instruc­tional video scen­ario shows male sol­diers mildly chas­tising a female sol­dier for walking around the mil­itary base at night without a safety buddy). It’s cer­tainly not reas­suring that the cul­ture will change when we hear Whitley’s suc­cessor, Mary Kay Hertog, praising the work of her pre­de­cessor. Tough ques­tions are also posed to mem­bers of Congress and powerful mil­itary offi­cials, who regur­gitate the institution’s offi­cial policy of “zero tol­er­ance” on MST incid­ents. That policy is shown to be tooth­less, how­ever, with assault com­plaints fre­quently get­ting reviewed by the accused rap­ists’ col­leagues and friends, and filed griev­ances a proven fast-track to career implo­sion for the com­plainant. Two vic­tims reveal that they were charged by the mil­itary with adul­tery because their rap­ists were mar­ried, and one of them adds that she was also charged with public intox­ic­a­tion and con­duct unbe­coming after the ordeal.

The Invisible War is an extremely com­pel­ling and important piece of film­making that will evoke anger, shock, com­pas­sion, and hope from its viewers. Not con­tent to take a passive role in the dis­cus­sion of its sub­ject, the doc­u­mentary con­cludes by extending its reach and assuming the role of anti-MST advocate, providing inform­a­tion on sup­port ser­vices and encour­aging par­ti­cip­a­tion and dis­cus­sion on the topic. Dick proudly announced at the post screening Q&A ses­sion that it appears the film has already had an impact since it deb­uted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and also started making the rounds in Washington: the Pentagon recently announced new ini­ti­at­ives to address the MST problem, including the sig­ni­ficant step of having assault invest­ig­a­tions placed fur­ther up the chain of com­mand to assure impartiality.

Official site of the film


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