The recent report of the sexual abuse of female trainees in the
Air Force underscores the urgency of a film like Kirby Dick's documentary about
rape in the military, "The Invisible War." Already the film has inspired
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to reform the way the crime is reported,
investigated, and prosecuted by a military system which has until now been
covering it up and pretending it doesn't exist.
But it is also a must-see because it is one of the most
moving films of the year. In it survivors of rape tell their stories, about how
they were assaulted by fellow soldiers they trusted, sometimes by their own
commanding officers. About how they reported the crimes, only to have their
cases ignored. In many instances they were themselves accused of crimes such as
adultery. Their pain and courage is heartbreaking and inspiring.
Dick has made a career of investigating the stories of those
who are marginalized, who are victimized by monolithic systems of power and
privilege. His previous films include "Twist of Faith" (2004),about the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse of minors by priests; "This Film
is Not Yet Rated" (2006), about how the MPAA and the ratings system; and "Outrage" (2009),
about closeted gay
politicians who advocate anti-gay legislation. But this may be his most powerful,
and influential film to date.
I interviewed Dick at the Provincetown International Film
Festival where he was awarded the Faith Hubley Award for career
"Twist of Fate" also won the festival's audience award for best documentary.
PK: Did you have a hard time getting in touch with people in
the armed forces who were on active duty and weren't retired?
KD: Well...we interviewed people within the Pentagon and we
got approval to that. But those are people who are not going to admit to the
scope of the problem and they didn't so...but people within the military can't talk
to the press without getting approval first.
So it's one of the reasons this has been covered up so long.
PK: Oh, by the way, congratulations on your Faith Hubley
KD: Thank you, I met...I guess her son yesterday. He was
really moved by the film, it was very touching, he said this is exactly what
his mother would have wanted to support.
PK: You were probably coming from the ferry to the screening
room but the post-script about Leon Panetta changing that rule [about how rape
is reported and prosecuted] got a huge round of applause. And there was a
standing ovation when Trina [McDonald, a Navy vet and rape survivor interviewed
in the film] came out there was a standing ovation.
KD: Oh that's great.
PK : So you were first inspired to do this from an article
KD Right, Helen Benedict, yes.
PK: And it was about women in the armed forces in Iraq, though, wasn't it?
KD: No, it was about this issue. Oh, you mean about women in Iraq that have
KD: You know...I don't remember, but I'll take you word for
it. Yeah, I mean we found that as many women are assaulted stateside as in Iraq, or Afghanistan. There was this
perception for a while in the second half of the last decade that it was a
problem overseas. In fact, I suspect it's even more of a problem here. It's
actually...soldiers are more watched over in theaters of combat. So you know...
PK: And you also probably don't want to alienate the person
who might need to save your life one moment to the next.
PK: The frontline camaraderie is a preventative factor, maybe?
KD: No, you're dealing with serial perpetrators here. They
use the sense of camaraderie to their advantage.
KD: Yeah, yeah. These are people who...it's a compulsion. I mean
people who...most rapes are committed by serial rapists whether they're in the
civilian world or the military.
PK: So you didn't
cover the problem in the war zone.
PK: Why is that?
KD: Well the people we ended up having contact with, who
made the best subjects, had not been assaulted in Iraq
I mean that's not entirely true, there are a few people who were minor subjects
who were, but it wasn't a deliberate choice really. It was just, they happened
to be assaulted here.
PK: It seems like you're suggesting here that the whole
problem is due to a few bad apples.
KD: Well many more than a few. And I think the bigger
problem is that not only are these assaults committed by serial perpetrators in
the military but the military has not really gone after them with the same will
that it fights a war. I mean, these are really enemies from within and until it
[the military] goes after these serial perpetrators and investigates and
prosecutes and incarcerates them it's going to have this problem. In my mind
the problem is that the institution and the people that top of this institution
haven't admitted it's a problem and taken it on with the will that it needs to
be taken on. That's really the message of the film. Are you asking if it's a
cultural issue at play too?
KD: That's a fair question, I mean I think it's definitely
true, and I think certainly the harassment that can precede an assault --obviously
that can be addressed culturally, and you know again this is something that the
military can change because they've dealt with a similar type of issue with
racism which was horrible in the 40s, 50s, 60s in the military and they set out
to change that and a decade later racism was much less in the military.
PK: It was a rough transition but it worked.
KD: Yeah it seemed to work, and when you talk to people...we
talked to one of the women in the film, a captain and an African American
woman, and she just said the sexism was off the charts, but the racism...if you
were caught [engaging in racist behavior] they would come down on you. And so
the military can do the same with this issue of the cultural climate. Because
these are very impressionable young men, they can be taught a lot of core
values and this can be one of them. So when they come out of the military they
can pass those values on to their children just like I think happened with
racism. Racism has declined to some degree over the last 50 years and I think
the military deserves a fair amount of credit for being a part of that decline.
PK: It seems like...the perpetrators, you didn't identify
them, but...but you do relate how they ended up, and one won the airman of the
year award and others were promoted. So it seems like they thrive in the
system. Could the system be in part to blame?
KD: Oh yeah, I think the system is very much to blame.
PK: The values that they encourage..?
KD: Yeah, well I would say that is true. I would. But to me
the thing you change is to wage a very public and aggressive campaign to go
after these perpetrators. That is the strongest message you can send. Not just
to send out a message that being a rapist or sexual abuser is a value you
should really have, but if you do it we'll put you in jail. That's how
important this value is, it's like being a traitor; do it and you're gonna get
PK: That's not a bad idea...
KD: [laughs] Yeah, that's a feeling from a lot of the
PK: People in the audience during the Q & A were asking
why you didn't drop a dime on the guilty parties.
KD: The reason was, we wanted to keep the focus on the
systemic problem. The thing that's going to pressure the military and cause it
to change is if we focus on the leadership. If it's focused on the individuals,
the bad apples, I think in some ways you take the responsibility and focus away
from the leadership. The individuals I'm interested in having the audience be
most upset with is the Secretary of Defense and the joint chiefs because
they're the ones who can change this.
PK: Who exactly has the power to take charge of this situation?
KD: The problem with congress is that any policy changes
that impact the military -- and this is true on both sides of the aisle, but
certainly with Republicans -- is that they wait for the military to give them
the OK. Congress -- and I think this film has actually assisted in this -- is
slowly initiating changes, but they're still marginal. In my opinion, it has to
come from the leadership in the military. And the administration.
PK: I noticed something odd about the genders of those
Congress members pushing for change that you interview in the movie. The only
men were the two Republicans and all the rest were Democrats and women. Should
we surmise anything from that?
KD: It seems like a Republican issue from the tough on crime
perspective. And that's where I think Ted Poe [a U.S. Representative from Texas] was coming at it
from; he's kind of a hanging judge. He's a judge and known to be very tough. Obviously
I want this to be seen as more than a women's issue and that's one of the
reasons I put in the spouses [of the victims] and the man who was raped as
well. So, yeah for the most part it's been Democrats who are women...and then
there's been some Republicans who've been working behind the scenes.
PK: John McCain seemed to be.
KD: Yeah, he was tough on that issue
PK: I mean they're looking for bi-partisanship in Washington; here's
something everybody agrees on and everyone can join in on and do something
KD: Everybody can jump on this issue, and it might actually
bring the country together in some way which would be nice.
PK: Do you think it's good that the film is coming out in an
KD: It's a good question. My concern is that in an election
year the military is even a more difficult topic to discuss for Democrats and
Republicans, it's such a live wire topic. Plus there's so much, sort of
political noise that perhaps the issue won't get raised through all the other
issues that are getting discussed. But it would be nice to see it, I mean, it
would be interesting to see if this question gets asked in a Presidential
debate, that would be...I think that could make a huge difference.
PK: It's a very loaded question because on the one hand
you've got the patriotic ideal that to support the troops which would seem to
preclude any criticism. But how are you supporting the troops if you're letting
them get raped?
KD: Right, but there is a position someone can take: be tough
on crime and pro military.
PK: "Don't Ask; Don't Tell"
was repealed before the film was completed. Do you think that's going to have
any positive effect?
KD: I do, because the military had fought, fought this tooth
and nail. And now the transition has seemed to have gone fairly well, so
perhaps they will take that experience and say, "this has worked out so well" and
"society supports this change" and this policy change hasn't caused a problem
within the military and see that the same thing could be done for the policy
changes around reducing sexual assault. So I think, yes, I think it's actually
a good forerunner to this in a way.
PK: The recent Secret Service sex scandal
that came out, I mean it's a different outfit...but it seems to be part of the
same problem. Do you think so?
KD: Umm, you know I'm not real knowledgeable about that. It
doesn't seem to have the issue of serial perpetrators at play, I think that's
almost the...I at least think the focus should be kept on that problem. When I
was doing these interviews, actually I mean I should say when my producer was
doing the interview; she did the interviews with the survivors. You could see
as the subjects were starting their narrative, they were starting to talk about
this person who was eventually going to assault them, you could see from the
very beginning that this was a serial perpetrator at work and they were getting
set up. Very early on in the conversation, "I got there, I was alone I didn't
know anybody, and this person with a higher rank befriended me": bingo. And
that was, time and again, that was the start of the serial perpetrator. Picking
somebody who was isolated and setting up this relationship so they could
eventually assault them. So it seems, serial perpetrator seems to be central,
in my mind, the central part of the problem.
PK: So you think these people are people who are already
sort of pathological when they go into the military see it as an
environment...somebody said a target rich environment -- that can exploit, or are
they not serial rapists yet, but they have the potential and then they find
this system which encourages that behavior?
KD: Well I think it'd be both I mean, yeah, if the system
encourages...well doesn't punish, people who might be somewhat inclined to that
might be...and then committed assault, get away with it, you know, do it again. I
think it's a combination I would think. I don't know if there's been studies
done on the distinction between somebody who's just completely pathological and
partially pathological. But I would think there'd be both.
PK: There's been a number of documentaries and news reports
about people who come back from the service, especially coming back from war
zones, who have been traumatized and have engaged in violence against their
spouses or other violent behavior. It seems like the combat experience, the
training they have to prepare for combat, exacerbates this tendency.
KD: Right, but I think this is different from that although
there are certainly...spousal rape is certainly at play here, there's no
question. I mean one of our subjects experienced that. But I don't see the
behavior examined in the film as a result of the training, these serial
perpetrators are not assaulting because of traumatic war experiences. What I
saw, and no ones ever written about this, but what I saw is a lot of these
assaults occurred after the women came out of boot camp, which they found to be
very egalitarian, it was everything they believe the military would be, a
meritocracy. But then they go to their first or second postings
PK: So they like boot camp?
KD: Oh yeah, everyone did. I don't think violent pathology
is indoctrinated there, I think that actually the ideal promoted is that "we're
all brothers and sisters. You'll die for your fellow solider." That ideal is a
very powerful, I think particularly for people who may have been assaulted
before or abused before in a family and are coming into a new family of sorts. They
finally found a safe spot, so their guard is even more let down. They trust
these people even more, and they go to their first or second station. Then four
or five steps up the chain of command who are able to pick these people off
each time a new group of people come through. I think that's one of the places
the military should look at very closely into because, anecdotally, I saw that
a very high number of men and women were assaulted in that environment.
PK: You mentioned that some of the women had already been
assaulted in their family situations. Is that...do you think there's a cause and
KD: Oh absolutely. We know from extensive studies in the
civilian world that if you've been abused or assaulted before you're more
likely to be a victim. And so, a lot of people come, like I said, into the
military because they're looking for a safety. So there's a higher percentage
of men and women who've been abused who come into the military and they're more
likely to become the victim of the higher percentage of men who've attempted or
completed rape in the civilian population who have come into the military and who
we know are more likely to assault again. So you really have perfect storm
conditions there. It's not the military's fault necessarily that these people
are coming in -- it's good they're attracting these people who are looking for
a safe haven and that's a positive thing. And it's true of every military that
they tend to attract people who are more aggressive. So inevitably, no matter
what screening they do, they're going to get a higher percentage of people who
have more of a tendency to assault. Now how much higher, right now don't know.
But all the more reason the military has to say, even publically, that his is a
problem we are taking care of. AS long as they just tinker around it will go on
PK: Like "The Thin Blue Line," this
is a film that actually changed something. Was that your intent all along? How
did it finally make its way to Leon Panetta?
KD: As soon as the film made such an impact at Sundance and won
the audience award we were aware of its power. So we took a campaign to get it
into the hands of as many people within the military or people who were
recently retired, policy level, higher ranking people and other influential
people as well, like non-profits that interact with the military, corporate
leaders. Because we wanted this word of mouth about the film within the
military. So we had probably about 40 or 50 or 60 screenings with policy makers
of all sorts in the military, very influential policy makers. And then it did
get to the Secretary of State.
So after he saw it a couple of days later he made some
significant policy changes. They are the first steps; we have a long way to go.
What happened was that Jennifer Newsom, who's the film's executive producer, is
married to Lt. Governor Gavin of California
and Gavin and Jennifer and Leon Panetta all know each other. Jennifer had met
Panetta at the White House Correspondence Dinner and Panetta told her thank you
for making the film and said he was very moved by it and then he held the press
conference in which he announced the policy changes because he had seen the
film. And obviously we were glad he made the changes and gratified that the
film had played a role in that announcement.
PK: Is anyone else in the White House going to see it?
KD: I'd certainly like to get it to the president and to Michelle
Obama. She would be great. We continue to work at that. It has to get to the
right person at the right time.
PK: If Obama saw the film and said, let's change it, it would
KD: I don't think the president has that kind of power.
Unfortunately or fortunately depending on the situation. But I think that would
be very significant if he decided that this was something he was going to take
on as an issue that he wanted to address.
PK: Kind of like his support of gay marriage?
KD: I think it would have more impact actually because he is
Commander in Chief. But I think it's also up to higher ranking people in the
Pentagon, especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You saw how the pushback that
came with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" went on for a long time. So it's not just the
President and the Secretary of Defense. I think it's the President, the
Secretary of Defense, and the higher ranking tier within the Pentagon. If those
three said yes, this is a major undertaking, I think you'd see some major
change. And now is a good time because I think, and this is only speculation,
but I think one of the reasons they are reluctant, that they continue the
cover-up of this issue, is that they know when it comes out it's going to
affect recruiting. But since we're in a downsizing phase right now it is
actually an opportunity. Because I think there will be in my opinion a drop-off
in the number of people who want to be in the military when they hear about
this. But the upside is that the military is going to say it's a problem we're
going to take care of it and after a few years when you start seeing results I
think people will start realizing that it's a safe place to be..
PK: It's almost an ultimatum: solve the problem or recruiting
will go down.
KD: Well, I don't think it's quite there. But there is a threat.
PK: You got an enthusiastic response when the film screened here,
but then Provincetown
is probably the bluest part of the bluest state. Have you shown it to more
challenging audiences, like in military bases?
KD: Well, actually the army has a conference each year that
brings 500 people within the army who are dealing with this issue on all levels
from enforcement to therapy, fairly high ranking and significant people, and
they actually showed them the film at the conference. And afterwards we got
quite a few emails about actually wanting to show the film as training. So the
army in particular..
PK: It certainly would be an improvement over the Army's PSA spot
saying, "Wait until she's sober."
KD: Well, you see, this is the thing. This film conveys this.. a
lot of people know it's a problem and they want the tools and the tools they
have are obviously inadequate. So this is a real opportunity to convey the
urgency of the issue and the devastation that it causes. Because most men in
the military are horrified by this. So it creates a very stark presentation of
what the problem is and that it's not joking matter and not the way it's
approached in this matter. They don't have this kind of tool. Nobody's going to
be joking about this, maybe some will be, but it's going to be much harder to
joke about sexual assault after you've seen this film.
PK: How does this situation compare to other countries? Israel, for
KD: I did hear from somebody anecdotally who was... she was
interactive with quite a few women in the Israeli military, and she said it was
quite a problem there. It's been a problem in the UK,
and it's still a problem in Australia,
all three of those countries have taken it [the investigation and prosecution
of rape cases] out of the chain of command and the victim in some cases has
been given access to civilian courts as well. I have to believe that it's a
problem in every military that has women and men, to a greater or lesser
extent, and probably a problem with all militaries an it's historically always
been a problem . If you think about it this is an issue that's been covered up
PK: Your film "Twist of Faith" dealt with victims of pedophile
priests. Which one is more screwed up, the Catholic Church or the military?
KD: Well, I'm somewhat more optimistic
about the military, actually. Partially because they dealt with racism, they
had "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And it's under civilian control, to the extent
that it is, it's under the control of a democracy as opposed to a... what would
you call the Catholic Church?
PK: A bunch of crazy old men?
KD: Especially with this recent issue in the Catholic Church and the
treatment of nuns. The Church is going in completely the opposite direction.
What I learned from making "Twist of Faith" was that the Catholic Church looks
at things in terms of centuries or millennia and a couple of decades of bad
press is not an issue for them. They're going to ride this out as opposed to
taking responsibility for it. Which is astounding.
PK: Your films have become more and more about the bigger picture
than about a single individual, such as the perfprmance artist in your first film "Sick: The
Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist." Have you changed your filmmaking philosophy?
KD: I think the transition point was "Twist of Faith." It started
out focusing on individual subjects, as a psychological study of an individual
subject and the impact of abuse. Once the film was finished, though, it took on
this political aspect as well because obviously we are still in the throes of
the discussion. I don't know if all my films are like this but certainly there
is a greater interest in taking on issues that have to deal with justice. And
also taking on an institution is very dramatic, bringing an element of drama
within the film. I still try to bring in the psychological as much as possible,
so in my mind as a filmmaker it adds a level of complexity by including this
political element as well. When you spend two years on a film, the more complex
and rich and broad the subject becomes.
PK: It seems that more and more documentarians are filling the
role that the news media should be fulfilling.
KD: It's good for documentarians but bad for the country. We can
only make up a small percentage of the journalism that's lost.
PK: Also, isn't the audience smaller?
KD: Well, I don't know about that. Maybe fewer people see the
film but the impact is stronger. I think a documentary is as significant as a
major "New York Times" story. Sometimes more significant. The problem is those
can be generated much quicker and they don't need the same kind of resources
and they're much easier to make. Getting somebody on camera and getting them to
talk is a huge step.
PK: One more question, and I think I know the answer. What is
your next film?
KD: I'm working in a few things but I can't talk about them.
PK: That's what I thought.