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Kirby Dick Talks Oscar-Nominated 'Invisible War,' Re-releasing This Weekend in NY and LA [UPDATE]

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 18, 2013 at 2:07PM

Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" has snagged one of the coveted five competing spots for the Academy's Best Documentary Oscar, and will be released January 18 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and at Laemmle's Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont theaters January 19...
Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta

But change is coming. After Sundance, the filmmakers undertook a massive screening campaign for influencers around the country, especially Washington, D.C., media, major non-profits, retried generals, the Department of Defense, and the Obama administration. Eventually a screener of the film got to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, although not directly from the filmmakers.

According to Dick, soon after Panetta saw the film he held an  April press conference laying out planned changes in the rules governing sexual assault in the military: commanders would pass investigations to an outside, higher-ranked colonel or captain, moving the prosecution up the level of command; each armed forces branch would have a Special Victims Unit, and more prosecutions would be pursued. At the White House Correspondents dinner, Panetta thanked executive producer Jennifer Siebil Newsom (wife of California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom) for making the film and said he was moved by it.

Dick is "cautiously optimistic. These first steps will lead to improvements." But having investigations stay within the chain of command still leaves open the potential for conflicts of interest, he says. And some of Panetta's proposals still have to be ratified in Congress: "It's a start. We advocate that people have to be moved outside chain of command so an arbiter makes the decision to investigate or prosecute, as is done in all civilian systems."

Invisible War tweet
Invisible War tweet

Having seen the film, at a July 25 joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs Committees, Massachusetts Representative Niki Tsongas (see tweet) brought up "The Invisible War" to Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (video below), who had seen it the day before. In the hearing she told Shinseki she was "heartened" by his interest in the film, and remarked how the film "painfully highlights" the bureaucratic hurdles that survivors of sexual assault have endure to get their proper benefits.

Showing the film seems to have an effect. To keep applying pressure on the government, the filmmakers have pulled together splinter groups --  sexual assault, veterans, human rights, and Protect Our Defenders--into an umbrella coalition called Invisible No More. A May screening of the film at an Armed Forces Sexual Harrassment/Assault Prevention Summit had a significant impact, says Dick. "We heard immediately that people wanted to order the film, the Army itself seems very proactive on using this film, ordered it for a number of bases, scheduled dozens of screenings at military establishments. We expect hundreds over the next year."

While Dick was prepared for some real resistance or counterattack from the military establishment, "in fact that has not happened," he says. "They've been receptive in using the film in training." That's because the film helps to put a human face on the suffering these attacks cause, and the lmited tools available for people dealing with sexual assault. "People on the ground know it's a problem and are doing everything they can to address the problem with tools that are ineffectual," says Dick. "They're glad to get hold of the film, to show exactly what happens." Seeing the film, in other words, hits you in the gut in a way that reading clinical reports simply does not.

"The Invisible War"  is in theaters around the country; it should come out on iTunes this fall, followed by VOD (October 23). ITVS is scheduled to show the film as part of its Independent Lens series over Memorial Day 2013. 

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentaries, Sundance 2012 Films, Sundance, Academy Awards, Awards, Awards, Oscars, DVD and VOD

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.