There are documentarians more celebrated than Kirby Dick, filmmakers who have a knack for picking subjects and flamboyant approaches that have energized the documentary format and brought it back to a theatrical life outside of the festival circuit.
One thinks of Michael Moore, Davis Guggenheim, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock and that fine old pro Errol Morris. But Kirby Dick (pictured, above) is a documentarian’s documentarian. He combines diligent craftsmanship with a muckraking sensibility that enables him to burrow deep into dysfunctional cultures resistant to reform — the Roman Catholic Church with its pedophile priests (“Twist of Faith”), the MPAA with its irrational and hypocritical movie ratings system (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”) and closeted politicians who support anti-gay legislation (“Outrage”). His method is a steady accumulation of facts, interviews and stories that bring your blood to a boil.
Dick’s new film “The Invisible War” is so ruthlessly efficient at this, and Dick’s technique so transparent — and the blood-boil so intense — that you scarcely notice how good the film is. You get so caught up in the subject matter, which is the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military, that you might overlook how difficult the film must have been to make and how courageous Dick and his partner Amy Ziering were to tackle a topic that our military establishment can hide ever so well.
How well? Let’s just say that if you’re in the military, you can’t even speak to the press without permission. A victim can’t sue the military and the entire military culture is built around not finking on a fellow soldier. Dick was undeterred. Thanks to his persistence, he delivers the document so damning that it will be interesting to watch how the military establishment tries to sweep this under the rug. Not that it won’t try.
All the fact and stats come courtesy of the military itself. There’s no point in endlessly listing them here so let this one speak for the aggregate: The Department of Defense estimates that 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted and that soldiers aged 18 to 21 account for more than half of the victims.
Appalling. But that’s not the worst of it.
The worst thing is the military reaction, historically and contemporaneously, to this fact: It doesn’t give a damn. Its system to deal with this issue is designed solely to protect the military image and not the victim. Seldom do sexual predators receive more than a wrist slap. More often, the victims themselves are prosecuted for daring to report the crime.
Dick and Ziering always “cast” their movies well and this is no exception. Putting faces to these statistics, the filmmakers have assembled a number of articulate women — and one man to highlight the fact that men can be victims too — who are willing to come forth with stories of acute humiliation and emotional and physical devastation in front of the camera.
All are wrenching, none more so than Kori Cioca, a former seaman with the Coast Guard. She was raped so badly in 2005 by a commanding officer that her broken jaw still gives her continual pain and she is in a Kafka-esque battle with the VA for approval of desperately needed surgery, which it continues to deny. The scenes with her husband, who also served with the Coast Guard, and small adorable daughter contain an almost unbearable poignancy.
The film itself made news when it screened in Sundance 2012 for the revelation of sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks Washington, the most prestigious Marine base in the country. (It’s the detail that serves the White House among other things.) The ritualistic drinking and raping that is part of that base’s male culture has apparently rattled even the high command. This news comes mostly from Lt. Ariana Klay — her attacker was convicted of adultery not rape — and Lt. Elle Helmer — the Corps claimed it “lost” her rape kit when it actually had not.
With no doubt great reluctance, DOD personnel do speak to Dick’s cameras. It’s one more nail in the coffin of military denial of the epidemic. Or rather three nails as Brig. General Mary Kay Hertog (director of the Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response office or SAPRO); her predecessor, Dr. Kaye Whitley; and Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta, director of Military Personnel, Plans and Policy, struggle to brush aside questions. Hard to say which is the lamest but my vote goes to Dr. Whitley, whose display of ignorance of both the problem and any solutions is staggering.
The crux of the matter is that if one is raped in civilian life, there are independent police and prosecutors one can go to in seeking justice. In the military, one goes to a supervisor, who might even be the perpetrator but even if not the decision goes up to the commander level. There a person, usually a male with no training or qualifications for making legal decisions of this nature, gets to decide on whether to pursue prosecution. And you know how that’s going to turn out in most cases. Does the phrase conflict of interest ring a bell?
One reacts to such a film with a mix of outrage and despair. However, there is one tiny bit of hope at the very, very end thanks to the fact Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw the film in April and has made a vital change to the way the military will handle rape allegations in the future. This is not the first time a Kirby Dick doc has done some good.
Dick is unafraid of a “talking heads” doc. He relishes going right to the source and getting detailed explanations and stories on the record from witnesses. Which is not to say that Moore, Spurlock and Co. haven’t breathed new life into the doc format by use of visual razzle-dazzle, animation, personal involvement and even deliberately staged confrontations in their films. But Dick sticks to the old-fashioned approach and it pays huge dividends in a film such as “The Invisible War.”
Opens: June 22 (Cinedigm and Docurama Films)
Production companies: Chain Camera Pictures and Regina Kulik Scully & Jennifer Siebel Newsom in association with ITVS, RISE Films, Cuomo Cole Prods., Canal Plus
Director/screenwriter: Kirby Dick
Producers: Amy Ziering, Tanner King Barklow
Executive producer: Regina Kulik Scully, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Abigail Disney, Maria Cuomo Cole, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Women Doners Network, Teddy Leifer, Sally Jo Fifer, Nicole Boxer-Keegan
Director of photography: Thaddeus Waddleigh, Kirsten Johnson.
Graphic design/animation: Bil White
Music: Mary J. Blige
Editor: Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra
No rating, 97 minutes