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Kirby Dick's last documentary was titled Outrage, but you could call his newest the same thing. A measured, expertly constructed chronicle of rape in the military, The Invisible War is a humane exposé that does not cease to shock. That includes its own filmmaker.
"After we'd done 40 or so interviews, I would think, 'I know what the stories are,'" Dick recalls in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "But with each new one, I actually couldn't believe this happened to a person wanting to serve their country and that this is how the military responded."
With a discipline matching its milieu, The Invisible War lays bare a disturbing, systemic problem: In the military, rape rates among women number at least one in five, and reporting of the crimes often leads to blame-the-victim retaliation. Dick has assembled a moving litany of testimonials, covering a variety of soldiers and scenarios, giving this heartfelt, steel-nerved, conscientiously argued film an emotional and political maturity rare among "issue" docs. In addition to the voices of the aggrieved (who include men), there are head-clutching interviews with sloganeering military officials. ("Ask her when she's sober!" runs one cringe-worthy awareness campaign.) Braided throughout are verity tagalongs with one fiery young vet, Kori Cioca, who hacks through VA hotlines while seeking medical coverage for a jaw broken by a superior.
Dick and producer Amy Ziering were inspired by Helen Benedict's depressing 2007 Salon article on women in Iraq, which they were surprised to discover no one was already adapting.
"It was almost like The Twilight Zone: Not only how could this be, but why aren't there 100 films being made? Why isn't everyone reacting to this?" Dick mused, sounding dismayed still now. "Even in the process of raising money, it took a while. I was really shocked."
The Invisible War, though revelatory, is perhaps the most straightforward film yet from a director who likes to broach the fault lines of sex and society. Dick has repeatedly examined hard-to-face taboos and hypocrisies: abuse by Catholic priests (Twist of Faith, 2004), closeted anti-gay politicians (Outrage, 2009), and the culturally insidious, frequently moronic, and arguably monopolistic MPAA (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, 2006).
Theory-heads could point to his portrait-of-a-deconstructionist Derrida (2002) as one model for Dick's mode of intelligent questioning. But the fascinating Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) presented his ethos earlier and made a splash in the pre-boom era of documentary with a penis-nailing scene heard round the world.
"It pushes people to consider a perspective that might otherwise have been considered marginal or even not wanted to think about," says Dick (who, in a neat bit of '90s outsider-documentary synergy, went to see Crumb with subject Flanagan).
Shockingly, the women and men of The Invisible War qualify as marginalized. Soldier after soldier (one even an investigator herself) report being ostracized, hostage/prey to protocols that sometimes saw assailants adjudicating their victims. One lawsuit on behalf of victims was dismissed on the grounds that rape was an occupational hazard ("incident to service"). Given close-quarter fraternity and a hierarchy undergirded by take-a-bullet trust, military rape is a betrayal that one commentator compares to incest.
That doesn't mean that Dick has crafted an anti-military screed. On the contrary, The Invisible War rings out with the rank and file reaffirming the boons and lessons they won from the military. Words of dissent are voiced—among them, Cioca's indelible comment in a military museum that maybe the victims deserve Purple Hearts. But The Invisible War, while unsparing with facts, is never an ideological pile-on.
"Honestly, I think it's the most positive, pro-military indie film ever made, ironically," says Ziering, who conducted the (by all accounts) cathartic interviews. Dick aspires to the evenhandedness of responsible reporting, with an emphasis on evidence and anticipating criticism. "In some ways, documentaries have taken over the role that nonfiction books played up until the last decade or so," he observes. The filmmakers feel this approach is key to reaching the two different audiences they've targeted: not only the public but also policy makers.
"The president, the secretary of defense, the [Joint Chiefs of Staff]—those are the people that I want to feel the most pressure, not a half-dozen perpetrators," Dick says.
In fact, the film, carefully circulated among government muckety-mucks since Sundance, has already achieved the rare documentary distinction of praxis. In April, soon after seeing the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced new policies governing rape reporting and prosecution in the armed forces.
It could be a step toward change, though the track record of follow-through isn't great. Dick is careful to be optimistic but cautious. "I'm somewhat hopeful that this could be a positive thing for society in the long run," he says. "But they've got a long way to go."
The Invisible War opens June 22 at AMC Loews Village 7. Look for a review in next week's Voice.
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