'The Invisible War': Film Review | Sundance 2012

The Invisible War

U.S. Documentary Competition

This eye-opening documentary turns a glaring spotlight on sex crimes in the American armed forces, and on the military establishment’s astonishing insensitivity to the issue.

The Audience Award winner for best documentary at Sundance 2012, Kirby Dick's shocking investigation into widespread sexual assault in the U.S. military is an urgent call to action.

A gut punch of moral outrage, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War presents overwhelming evidence that the U.S. military’s purported zero-tolerance attitude to sexual assault is a charade. It illustrates the human cost of that sham with heart-wrenching displays of courage and dignity in the face of institutional indifference. Destined to draw major editorial attention, this hard-hitting advocacy film exposes the dirty secret not as an attack on the armed forces but as an indignant petition to protect the more vulnerable among their ranks.

Emotionally powerful interviews with rape victims, conducted by Dick’s producer Amy Ziering, form the core of the documentary. But even without putting faces to the issue, the statistics alone are staggering. Department of Defense data shows that 20% of servicewomen experience rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment, causing a higher rate of PTSD among them than among men in combat.

Given the repercussions – violence, ostracization, loss of rank or career – it’s estimated that 80% of sexual assault cases in the military go unreported. With 3,158 cases recorded in 2010, that puts the likely total for the year at more than 19,000. Of the more than 108,000 veterans who screened positive for Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in 2010, 45.7% were men. And while male survivors are represented here, the film points to the rampant stigmatization, shame and homophobia that keep most sexually assaulted military men from coming forward.

One of the key subjects is Kori Cioca, a U.S. Coast Guard seaman who sustained permanent damage to her jaw when she was struck while resisting the sexual demands of the supervising officer who later raped her. Marine Corps Lt. Ariana Klay, who served for nine years, was threatened with death if she reported being raped by her senior officer and his friend. Trina McDonald was raped repeatedly by Naval military police while stationed in remote Adak, Alaska. Navy seaman recruit Hannah Sewell was raped while still a virgin.

The common thread among these and other victims is how being sexually brutalized extinguished the pride and idealism they had felt in serving their country. Many of them come from military families or have husbands also in the forces; the men's anguish and sense of impotence when discussing the ordeals of their wives or daughters is extremely moving. A large number of MST survivors contemplate or attempt suicide, and video diaries provide an intimate glimpse into the ongoing difficulties of their lives.

The other, more insidious unifying factor is the negligence of the military disciplinary process. The chain-of-command structure means that the only recourse for rape victims frequently is to report the incident to the attackers themselves, or to collusive supervisors who are too reluctant to lose valuable soldiers to take the complaints seriously. The prevailing attitude appears to be that sexual assault is an occupational hazard of military service.

In an astonishing case that appears typical of widespread perversion of justice, an unmarried rape victim saw her married attacker go unpunished while adultery charges were brought against her. The film uncovers many such blood-boiling accounts. The prestigious Marine Barracks Washington, close to the Capitol, is shown to be particularly rife with sexual misconduct; participation in post-parade partying and drinking is described as virtually mandatory. When Lt. Elle Helmer was raped by a Major there, the inquiry into his behavior was dropped in three days, with Helmer then placed under investigation for public intoxication and conduct unbecoming.

The film focuses exclusively on sexual assault not in the psychologically destabilizing environment of foreign war zones but in U.S. military compounds, which in effect makes it more shocking.

Some of the most unsettling information points to the predatory nature of rape in the forces, with violent incidents often preceded by prolonged stalking or harassment. Prosecution rates in military rape cases are exceedingly low, and the number of convictions minimal. Given that the Dept. of Defense does not maintain a sex offender registry, habitual rapists are regularly promoted or re-enter civilian life with no blemish on their reputations.

The willful blindness to the problem and systemic nature of the cover-up is evident in evasive interviews with senior military personnel.

Among the most maddening of these is Kaye Whitley, former director, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Requiring little help from the filmmakers, she paints herself as an idiotic technocrat who shirks the question of accountability in favor of ineffectual ad campaigns aimed at prevention. One of the most laughable of these carries the tag line “Don’t risk it. Ask her when she’s sober.” Another indirectly blames the victim, pointing to the foolishness of women going anywhere on a military base unaccompanied.

Dick adopts an admirably non-partisan stance in showing how both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have gotten behind this issue. It’s refreshing these days to see any documentary evidence of across-the-aisle agreement. But with the military governed by its own closed-door rules, and invulnerable to lawsuits by active or former servicemen, political attention has had little impact. What’s needed, the film suggests, is to take the disciplinary power for sexual assault out of the hands of unit commanders.

Since his breakthrough in 1997 with Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Dick has covered an eclectic range of subjects, from the hypocrisy of closeted politicians to the MPAA to French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The Invisible War is arguably his most urgently affecting work to date. Skillfully edited by Doug Blush and Derek Boonstra, the film plants a knot in the stomach of the viewer and then steadily tightens it via an accrual of information, to a point where it seems inconceivable that this epidemic can be allowed to continue unchecked.

The film’s intention is not to tarnish the U.S. military or to reveal another psychological scar on its servicemen, and Dick is careful to avoid directly linking the pervasive sexual misconduct to soldiers involved in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts. The purpose is simply to shed light on a horrifying situation and bring an end to the military authority’s inaction.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Production companies: Chain Camera Pictures, Regina Kulik Scully & Jennifer Siebel Newsom, in association with Independent Television Service, RISE Films, Cuomo Cole Productions, Canal Plus

Director-screenwriter: Kirby Dick

Producer: Amy Ziering, Tanner King Barklow

Executive producers: Regina Kulik Scully, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Geralyn White FDreyfous, Abigail Disney, Maria Cuomo Cole, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Teddy Leifer, Sally Jo Fifer, Nicole Boxer-Keegan

Directors of photography: Thaddeus Waddleigh, Kristen Johnson

Music: Mary J. Blige

Editors: Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra

Sales: Film Collaborative, RoCo

No rating, 99 minutes