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Military Rape Doc 'Invisible War' Continues to Push Change on Capitol Hill

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 14, 2013 at 4:24PM

While fictional Oscar nominee "Zero Dark Thirty" has challenged Washington politicians to respond to its hybrid journalism, Kirby Dick's searing Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War" has exposed the scope of a military crisis that Capitol Hill didn't realize was happening. In a way, seeing the film has given the DC establishment permission to respond to something that had been heretofore hidden and taboo. That's because the film puts a face on a group of well-trained, idealistic young women who sought to serve their country and were rewarded with rape, mental and physical stress, injury and trauma, and an insensitive military bureaucracy that looked the other way when they sought redress.
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"Invisible War"
'Invisible War'

While fictional Oscar nominee "Zero Dark Thirty" has challenged Washington politicians to respond to its hybrid journalism, Kirby Dick's searing Oscar-nominated "The Invisible War" is a documentary that has exposed the scope of a military crisis that Capitol Hill didn't realize was happening. In a way, seeing the film has given the DC establishment permission to respond to something that had been heretofore hidden and taboo. That's because the film puts a face on a group of well-trained, idealistic young women who sought to serve their country and were rewarded with rape, mental and physcial stress, injury and trauma, and an insensitive military bureaucracy that looked the other way when they sought redress. The numbers are staggering: a virtually unchanging 19,000 incidents of sexual assaults per year, with approximately 80% left unreported.

The movie has shocked people into reacting. And it has wrought remarkable change over the course of a year. When confronted with this movie (now out on DVD/VOD), members of Congress, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the upper echelons of the military were able to react to the institutionalized cover-up of rape within the military, says Dick on the phone from Washington: "You can see how far the issue has moved. Senators are now speaking publicly about policy. That would have been impossible 2 1/2 years ago, even to get a senator to appear in the film to discuss this, members of congress were very careful about how they spoke, they were hesitant even if they were supportive of change, and cautious about how to take on the military. The film has become a reference point for the issue for Congress, the Administration and the military." Thirteen members of Congress who had seen the film met Wednesday morning at the Pentagon to discuss rape in the military.

Kori Cioca in "The Invisible War"
Kori Cioca in "The Invisible War"

With the Oscars only weeks away, the film's campaign is ramping up, and along with it a steady push for change. On the evening of February 13, after a sold-out screening in Washington, DC, Dick participated on a panel moderated by Judy Woodruff, with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, Rear Admiral Susan Blumental and "The Invisible War" executive producer Maria Cuomo Cole, with an RSVP list including Chair of the Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Levin, and Senators Tom Udall and Bob Corker.

The recent announcement that women in the military will be able to advance their careers via combat duty will help them to attain much-needed respect, says Dick: "It's long overdue, it's equal opportunity for women. As long as they didn't serve they were seen as second-class members of the military and were subject to harrassment in that environment. In that regard it's good and will help to address the problem. But," he adds, "serial predators are still not being incarcerated. The military has a long way to go to figure out how to solve that problem. But the film is generating allies for change."

Invisible War Killebrand tweet

"The Invisible War" Washington screening campaign began a year ago on February 28, hosted by 16 Senators and six members of the House of Representatives. The ripple effect was swift. After seeing the film, Panetta held an April 14 press conference to lay out major policy changes in the way the military handles sexual assault. Then President Obama released an April 23 statement calling for sexual assault to be thoroughly investigated and offenders held accountable. General Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, held a two-day meeting with all 85 generals in the Marine Corps to discuss the problem. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a May 8 Strategic Direction, which is a must-read for all commanders, to fight sexual assault in the military. Starting in July, the Army, Air Force, and National Guard began to show the film in their sexual assault training. The first of twelve instructors charged with sexual misconduct, from Lackland Air Force Base, was sentenced on July 20 to 20 years for sexual assault.

General Welsh, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, flew in all 135 Wing Commanders in the Air Force from bases around the world to screen the film in November. The Senate finally passed the Boxer Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits the armed forces from granting waivers to military candidates with a sex crime on their record, on November 29. California Senator Boxer had tried to get it passed since 2005, and says that the film pushed it forward. Between June and December, estimate the filmmakers, some 235,000 service members (10% of the U.S. armed forces) watched the film.  

On January 4, 2013, President Obama signed the NDAA, legislation that addresses sexual assault in the US military.  According to the filmmakers "it includes provisions to establish comprehensive special victims units, measures to prevent professional retaliation against survivors and mandatory climate surveys for every commander in the Armed Forces to determine the prevalence of sexual assault in the unit and the standards of prevention and prosecution fostered by the commander."

The full House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on sexual assault on January 23. And during confirmation hearings on January 31, Senator Blumenthal asked Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel whether he’d seen "The Invisible War.’” He had. (His confirmation is being resisted by Republicans; 22 male Senate Republicans also voted against the Violence Against Women Act-- which nonetheless passed, 78-22.)

In related news, One Billion Rising!, a day of global action to end violence against women and girls, is a response to UN statistics that 1 in 3 women in their lifetime will be raped or beaten, amounting to over 1 billion women & girls worldwide. One Billion Rising, which is calling on "one billion women and men to rise in a commitment to ending violence against women and girls," is on the ground in over 200 countries and this week the United Nations officially signed on to the campaign.

This article is related to: Interviews, Kirby Dick, The Invisible War, Awards


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Thompson on Hollywood

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.