PROVINCETOWN — Over the past decade, the Oscar-nominated documentary provocateur Kirby Dick has offered up searing indictments of the Catholic Church’s coverup of clergy sexual abuse (“Twist of Faith”), the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who support anti-gay legislation (“Outrage”), and the Hollywood studios and their secretive, byzantine ratings system (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). His latest target? The startling yet little-known proliferation of rapes in the US military.
Opening in the Boston area on Friday, the new film is called “The Invisible War.” It’s an incendiary exposé, co-produced by Dick and Amy Ziering, and, more than any film Dick, 59, has directed thus far, it could be a real game-changer. It offers a deluge of evidence that points to the extent of sexual assault in the US military and the ways in which the assaults have been condoned and covered up. According to the Pentagon’s own statistics, an estimated 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. Yet more than 85 percent of victims never report the abuse, for fear of retribution, harassment, or simply being ignored. Females in the armed forces are far more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. And the problem is not limited to women. Last year, nearly 50,000 male veterans reported having experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.
“The Invisible War” has already made waves on Capitol Hill. After seeing the film in April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered his commanders to hand over all sexual assault allegations to a higher-ranking colonel, to prevent victims from having to report crimes to a direct supervisor who might be enabling or even participating in the abuse. Panetta also announced that each branch of the armed forces would establish a Special Victims Unit.
During an interview in June at the Provincetown International Film Festival, where “The Invisible War” captured the Audience Award for best documentary feature, Dick said that these changes are promising, but cautioned that they are only a first step.
“The story is really starting to explode out into the public consciousness now. One of the real purposes of the film was to help change policy. In fact, in some ways it was made as a report to policymakers. . . . Panetta has just made some important changes. But there’s a lot more that has to be done,” said Dick, who also picked up the Faith Hubley Career Achievement Award at the festival.
To find the moving personal narratives that would power the film, Dick and Ziering reached out to veterans’ and victims’ advocacy groups and used social media to locate survivors who might be willing to discuss their experiences on camera.
Kori Cioca, who says her jaw was broken during an assault by her commanding officer in the Coast Guard, recounts being told she would be court-martialed for lying if she pursued the case. Cameras follow her as she navigates the byzantine process of getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for corrective surgery.
Then there’s the heartbreaking account of former Navy seaman Trina McDonald, who was allegedly drugged and repeatedly raped by military police and higher-ranking officers at a remote Alaska naval station in 1989. McDonald recalls pleading with her father on the phone to come and get her, but she couldn’t tell him why, because she believed her attackers were listening to her calls. Since leaving the Navy, she has battled severe PTSD.
“I attempted suicide three times in the first five years after I got out of the service. I just felt like no one in the world could possibly understand what I was going through,” said McDonald, seated alongside her wife, Amy Rosaaen-McDonald, on a bluff overlooking Provincetown Harbor.
Retired Brigadier General Loree Sutton, who was the highest ranking psychiatrist in the Army, explained that there’s a blame-the-victim mentality that proliferates. Accusations are often met by skepticism, foot-dragging, or even outright reprisal. Indeed, only 8 percent of military sexual assault cases are ever prosecuted.
So getting the victims to open up on camera proved especially challenging because reliving the trauma can be so painful.
“We created a very safe space for them to talk about this. And I think what was really transformative for them was that this was the first time that a figure with any kind of authority actually believed them and understood what they were going through. Whereas oftentimes before, they were sort of caught explaining something that just seemed Kafka-esque,” said Dick, gazing out over the harbor with focused energy.
Sexual assault scandals have engulfed the military in national firestorms before, including incidents at Tailhook in 1991, at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, and at the Air Force Academy in 2003. But the military weathered those storms, dismissing the scandals as aberrations at most.
“The military has been able to, first of all, deny it,” Dick said. “Then go after the victims, and raise questions about whether it was really an assault. Introduce the idea that alcohol was involved — and so somehow that takes a certain responsibility off the assailant, which is of course completely untrue. And then finally say, ‘Well, it was just a couple of people at this base, and we’re taking care of it.’ ”
“The Invisible War” has even achieved a rare feat for a documentary by breaking a national news story: The alleged coverup of incidents of sexual assault and harassment at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington. Such a scandal unfolding at the oldest and most elite Marine base in the country, within a mile of the Capitol, crystallized the sweeping extent of the problem.
“If there’s one message we’re trying to get across, it’s to say that ‘This is systemic.’ That was always the intent of our film. And I think the film has been very successful in keeping the military in the crosshairs,” said Dick.
“When I’m making a film, I look for that: to what extent sexuality and traumas — and sometimes they come together — can come into play,” said Dick. “I’m also attracted to people who come from the outside, whether it’s Bob Flanagan, or people who are taking on the Catholic Church, or these women and men who are coming forward to talk about this covered-up epidemic. They make for great characters, because they are taking on institutions, and it creates a conflict that’s pregnant with drama.”
Panetta’s actions are promising first steps and should be applauded, says Sutton, but further changes are necessary. Dick suggested that other reforms should include setting up an independent judicial system, separate from the military chain of command, to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases.
Perhaps most importantly, the military must weed out the perpetrators. One expert in the film estimates that “the average sex offender in their lifetime has about 300 victims.”
“The central problem is that most of the people who are committing the assaults are serial perpetrators,” said Dick, who argues that the military is losing thousands of good soldiers every year because of fear of sexual assaults, and that it’s badly damaging unit cohesion. “So the military has to go after these perpetrators, because they really are enemies from within. And they have to go after them with the same resolve that they fight a war — and to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate them. Until they do that, they will continue to have this problem on a very broad scale.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@