‘The Invisible War’: How Oscar’s Military Rape Documentary Might Change Everything

The Invisible War casts a harsh light on the sexual assault epidemic in the military. The film’s director, Kirby Dick, on how it is changing the military and culture at large.

The Invisible War

Much of the attention this Oscar season has gone to the rich and unpredictable Best Picture category, but the most interesting race may actually be happening down the ballot between a murderer’s row of politically charged documentaries. Five Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s look at Palestinians coping with the arrival of militant Israeli settlers in their West Bank community, faces off with The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, and Estelle Fialon’s unprecedented examination of Israeli security agency Shin Bet. David France’s searing chronicle of AIDS activism, How to Survive a Plague, is in the mix, as is Kirby Dick’s present-day cri de coeur against sexual assault in the military, The Invisible War. In this company, the much-loved music biopic Searching for Sugarman, a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival is practically a ray of sunshine.

“They’re all excellent films,” Dick said, considering the films that are going up against his searing condemnation of the sexual-assault epidemic in the military for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards on February 24. “It was an amazing year this year for documentaries. But this is the film that—if it does get an Academy Award—it will motivate Congress, it will motivate the [Defense Department], it will motivate the military to make even more changes. There will be a direct result from this winning the award and the reduction of rape. That will happen.”

It’s a bold claim for Dick to make. But he might actually have a point.

The Invisible War has done something exceptionally rare. Rather than tackling an issue that’s safely in the past, Dick and his subjects have confronted an ongoing culture of sexual violence and grotesque indifference in one of the country’s most respected institutions. And instead of being dismissed as Hollywood liberalism, or creating a temporary spike in awareness that dissipates shortly after its release, The Invisible War is helping push forward action in Congress and substantive reform in the military itself.

It’s one thing for a movie in Oscar contention to get snared in politics, or to seek out political relevance as a way of linking a film to a larger narrative. The Senate Intelligence Committee announced plans to investigate the research Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal did in preparation for the film, on the grounds that their Central Intelligence Agency sources may have influenced the movie’s portrayal of the efficacy of torture—even though one of the officials who spoke to the filmmakers has publicly denounced the movie, hardly suggestive of a successful spin operation. Bradley Cooper, who played a middle-class Pennsylvanian dealing with a late diagnosis of bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook, stopped by the Center for American Progress (where, disclosure, I work) to do a press conference with Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former representative Patrick Kennedy to discuss mental-health policy. How to Survive a Plague had a surge of interest when former New York City Mayor Ed Koch died last week, given his resistance to acting publicly on his city’s AIDS crisis and his role as a target of some of the protest groups featured in the film.

But it’s quite another for a film to be caught up in an unfolding policy debate, helping to drive it forward—and also becoming part of the solution.

“I expected it to die down,” Dick said of the reaction to The Invisible War. “It’s usually what happens.”

But since The Invisible War’s release, federal action on sexual assaults in the military has instead accelerated. On January 23, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the investigation into Lackland Air Force Base, the site of the Air Force’s basic training: a staff sergeant stationed there was convicted of rape and sexual assault last summer, and 32 instructors are alleged to have sexually coerced or formed relationships with their students that violate military regulations. The New York Times wrote “that they are doing so is in large part a tribute to” The Invisible War, though Dick said he was frustrated that so many congressmen left the hearing to attend a vote, skipping the part of the program where assault survivors testified about their experiences.

“There are hundreds of thousands of survivors in this country. They were completely voiceless,” said Dick. “I’ve never come to a story where fewer people knew the story than this story. By having a whole room of the Armed Services Committee, and people not there, it’s an extension of that.”

His frustration stems from a conviction that sexual assault is an abstraction until survivors’ voices are heard, and that failure to listen is one of the reasons the sexual-assault epidemic became so significant. When he interviewed Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, the former director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, he said, “We asked her, ‘Have you ever spoken or talked to a survivor?’ and she said, ‘No, but I’d like to.’”

The hearing is only one indicator of a larger shift in momentum, however. On January 29, the Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) calling on the military to do more to provide care for assault victims. And when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced on January 23 that the military would lift its official ban on women serving in combat, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey argued that the move could help prevent some sexual assaults by improving respect for servicewomen, saying, “I believe it’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel, at some level.”

And during Sen. Chuck Hagel’s hearings to succeed Panetta as Defense secretary, Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked, “I don’t know whether you’ve seen an excellent documentary called, The Invisible War.” When Hagel confirmed that he had, Blumenthal told him, “I would ask that your commitment, not only to the prosecution and holding accountable people who are involved in this criminal conduct, but also to the victims so that they receive the kind of services that, in the civilian world, many of them do … Can you commit to that?” Hagel promised that he would.

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Even before Hagel’s promise, The Invisible War was getting traction within the military itself, where it’s become a training tool and an agent of cultural change. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh screened The Invisible War for a meeting of wing commanders in November. And the rank and file are seeing the movie as well. Dick says that a distributor he works with who sells movies to the military and other institutions estimates that 235,000 service members—or nearly 10 percent of the 2.9 million members of the active and reserve armed forces—saw The Invisible War in 2012.

“The military itself is using the film for sexual-assault training, in part because, of course, they have no tools,” Dick said. “Eighty-five percent of those [viewers] are men. I think men seeing this is the real game changer, too. I think the film, not only on a policy level but on a cultural level, [is changing] the military. What people would joke about, you see this film and you don’t joke about it anymore.”

For all Dick is shocked by the failures of legislators and the military to act sooner, and by the Washington press corps for failing to investigate sexual assaults at Marine Barracks Washington—“There are documents, there is a lot of stuff there,” he said—he remains hopeful that the military can change, and that the rest of society can as well.

“The military’s done this before with racism. They could do it with this issue. And they could actually become a leader on the issue of sexual assault for the entire society,” he said. “There’s such divisiveness within this country, and especially around the military. There are a lot of issues with the military. But I think it’s a wonderful thought to think that civilians in society will look to the military as having been a leader in helping to reduce sexual assault across the country.”

“I think it could bring people who are pro-military and people who are critical of the military together,” he continued. “It’s a dream. But it’s a possibility. This can change. They can do it.”