An Interview With Kirby Dick



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 achievement. "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 award

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 in "Salon?"

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 been assaulted.

PK: Yeah.

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.

KD: Hmmm...yeah...

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.

PK: Really?

KD: Yeah, yeah. These are people'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.

KD: No.

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 or Afghanistan. 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?

PK: Yes.

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 shot.

PK: That's not a bad idea...

KD: [laughs] Yeah, that's a feeling from a lot of the survivors.

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 good.

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 election year?

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 you think there's a cause and effect relationship?

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 indefinitely.

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 happen?

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 example.

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, Canada.. 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 for millennia.

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.

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