Oscar-nominated documentarian Kirby Dick has made a series of powerful documentaries, often implementing his signature style of peeling back iron curtains that few others would have the courage to peer beyond. Twist of Faith (for which Dick was nominated for Best Documentary Feature) followed a man confronting his past sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. Dick’s controversial film Outrage served as an indictment of closeted politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation. His latest film, The Invisible War, is an expose on the epidemic of rape and violent sexual assault within the U.S. military, and the systematic cover-up of the crimes. The Invisible War won the Audience Award at Sundance and, in a most stellar year in documentary filmmaking, Dick’s latest work is the clear frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. The Invisible War opens on Friday, June 22nd in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, with other cities to follow. When it played at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I had the opportunity to chat with Dick about making the film and its reception. Here’s what Dick shared with me about making a film that broke a national news story, screening it for the Secretary of Defense, and crafting The Invisible War.
Jackson Truax: When you and your producer Amy Ziering set out to make The Invisible War, what were the initial questions you were trying to answer, or things you were trying to find out?
Kirby Dick: There was certainly an entire range of questions. We wanted to find out the nature of the experience of these hundreds of thousands of men and women that had been assaulted. And what they’d gone through, both in their experience of assault and then after they reported it, and how the military turned on them. This is a story that really wasn’t being told. We wanted to understand the nature of the cover-up. Why was there a cover-up? Why has it been covered up for several generations? We wanted to understand and present the fact that this is a systemic problem. Up until our documentary, the problem had mainly been presented as being about individual cases… We wanted to show that this was a systemic problem… There was not only no film on the subject prior to The Invisible War, there was really no single book that had examined the issue in its totality… So we had our work cut out for us.
JT: The interviews in the film fall into basically three main categories: the high-level Pentagon personnel, the elected officials, and then the victims of rape in the military and their families. When you set out to try and get these interviews, was it immediately obvious who to talk to, and were people eager to talk to you and Amy, or was getting these interviews a challenge?
KD: To get the interviews with survivors was the real challenge. Most of these survivors have extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. They’re very agoraphobic. Oftentimes they blame themselves. They were hard to find and very skittish about coming forward. So we continued to research and look for subjects for more than a year. Even as we began shooting the film, we reached out to therapists, attorneys…most importantly, we used the internet and Facebook and reached out to people making sometimes oblique references in a conversation on a comment page, saying, “I was in the military. I know what you’re talking about,” in response to a thread or discussion about rape in the military… [Producer] Amy Ziering would contact them and say, “We’re doing background research. Could you talk to us a little more about your understanding of this?” In most cases, they’d been raped themselves. After being diligent for more than a year, we were able to get some incredible subjects… To get into the Pentagon was a challenge. It took about nine months. Largely because…there’s a certain suspicion on their part. We were able to convince them that we were legitimate… They were very nice… The other thing that was really a challenge was getting the interviews with the experts who’d been in the military who knew the extent of the problem… That took a great deal of work… NCIS people, JAG people, who had been on the ground dealing with the problem, they had never explained it before. They were hard to find. But we were able to find them.
JT: I would imagine interviewing both male and female victims of rape, and in some cases violent sexual assault posed some unique challenges. What were the biggest challenges in conducting these interviews?
KD: Initially, people were very afraid to speak. Because when they had reported this, the military turned on them… Amy interacted with the survivors for the most part, and then conducted the interviews. She was really masterful at what she did. From the very beginning, she created a very safe space in terms of conversations over the phone, and then in doing the interviews. She would say to people, “You can say whatever you like. If you say something you want to retract, that’s fine. The most important thing here is your safety and comfort. If you want to stop, you can stop.” She was able to set up this very safe space. And at the same time, make them feel comfortable enough that they could go into detail about what happened… It turned out the experience of being in the film and doing these interviews was very transformative for these survivors. Because up until that interview, they’d never been believed or understood. So not only were filmmakers coming to believe and understand them, they were speaking about the most traumatic experience in their lives, and they were trying to do something positive by becoming part of a project in the film that would help prevent assault to tens of thousands of men and women who are serving right now. All of that has been very transformative.
JT: The story of former US Coast Guard Kori Cioca is presented in a really interesting and compelling way. In addition to the interview footage, you present a cinema verite look at her and her family’s lives as they struggle to deal with this. How did you decide to use that approach in filming someone and what made Cioca the ideal person to spend so much time with?
KD: Kori is a phenomenal documentary subject. We knew from the moment we met her. She had that ability to be very articulate about what happened to her and why it happened. At the same time, she’s able to go to a very emotional place and then come out of it again and go back to this articulate perspective and then go back to the emotional place. A lot of subjects can do one or the other. The ones that can do both…really give a complete picture that audiences really connect to… The family as a whole was very welcoming… We’d just go over there and hang out, and they were completely fine with it and happy… It wasn’t like we were invading their space. It was like we were, in a way, old friends from the very beginning. They were happy to have a camera around… They were just very comfortable with that. So we knew very early on they would be central subjects in the film.
JT: When you were in the process of doing research for the film and conducting these interviews, what did you see or hear or learn that surprised you the most?
KD: I think the thing that surprised me the most was that the stories were so similar. That these people were very idealistic. They were joining, oftentimes after 9/11 because they felt that it was every American’s duty to serve their country. Then they were assaulted… They believed in the system enough to come forward and report it. Then the military turned on them. And the people committing the assaults were serial perpetrators. They were picking their victims, and isolating them, and setting them up, assaulting them in such a way that they knew that they could get away with it. We heard that story over and over and over. The fact that I could see that these perpetrators were acting throughout the military and yet the military wasn’t acting on that. I think that was the thing that outraged me the most.
JT: One of the reasons the film is so important is that it broke the news story of the large number of incidents of harassment and sexual assault at Marine Barracks Washington and the five years spent covering it up. How did you come across all of that information, and then navigate how to present it in the film?
KD: We came across the information because we’re working very closely with Susan Burke, the attorney in the film. And the victims had come to her. There’s something unique about this for a documentary… This is a national news story. It’s very rare for a documentary to break a national news story. No one had ever reported on this. It was a real challenge, because…we had to gather all the information but corroborate it meticulously… We were very pleased that we were able to successfully present this story.
JT: Since the film played at Sundance, has there been any blowback or retaliation or threats from the military or the government, either toward you and Amy as filmmakers, or the subjects in the film?
KD: There was some initial blowback from the Marines toward the subjects from Marine Barracks Washington. But I think that, for whatever reason, it may have come from the top, unless it came from the Secretary of Defense or from the top of the Marine Corps, that has stopped. But for the most part, just the opposite. We could see when the film was screening at Sundance, people in the military of all ranks were seeing this film. And they were embracing it. They felt that it was really important that this story’s getting told because they were aware of the problem. Then after Sundance, and after winning the Audience Award at Sundance, we embarked on a very extensive and very strategic campaign to get this film seen at all levels of the military. At the highest levels of the military, in the Department of Defense and in the Pentagon, we’ve had multiple private screenings for some of the highest level people… There’s a discussion going on at the Department of Defense and at the Pentagon about this film and about the issues that this filmed raised. It was seen by the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, who…said that he was shocked by the film and really moved by it. He said, “It was a very important film and thank you for making it.” Two days later he held a press conference, and said part of the reason he held the press conference was because the film had made such an impact on him. At that press conference, he introduced some very important policy changes.
JT: If everybody goes and sees The Invisible War and it gets a lot of attention throughout the year and all the acclaim it deserves, what’s the ultimate you hope the film might have, either on audience members who see it, or America on a broader scale?
KD: On audience members, we know it’s transformative. Most audience members, like myself before I started the film, were unaware that this is happening. So it completely informs them on this. I think it does that in such a way, it makes such an impact, I think they’ll never forget the film or this issue as a result of this film. Awareness of both individuals and society is important. We also made this film to affect policy. Because this is something the military can change…to try and make for a stronger military and a more effective fighting force. It’s all going to make for a better society. That’s starting to happen. There are some initial policy changes. They haven’t gone far enough. They’ve got a long, long way to go. Our hope is that after generations of covering this up and denying it’s a problem, that the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense will take this on, go after these serial rapists…go after them with the same will that they fight a war. Because serial rapists are really enemies within… Investigate and prosecute them, that’s the most important thing they have to do.