MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
A Spotlite on KIRBY DICK, the Director of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary THE INVISIBLE WAR
By Tyler Malone
We all fight invisible wars, we wrestle with things no one else can see. The story of each of our inner struggles is a story that only we can ever wholly know. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Each has his past shut up in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.” We all fight invisible wars, but admittedly some wars are bigger and more devastating than others.
The women and men featured in Kirby Dick’s new moving documentary, the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War, are all victims of sexual assault while serving our country in the military. Most not only fight the interior invisible war of struggling to cope with the violence and trauma of their assault–an insurmountable enough obstacle– but also the exterior invisible war of bureaucratic cover-up and comrade-imposed ostracization.
As I watched The Invisible War, I kept thinking back on that Woolf quote. Each of the survivors featured have a whole Russian novel’s worth of conflict and inner turmoil and unimaginable pain locked up inside them. Though we can never fully understand what they’ve been through or what they continue to go through, these soldiers, through telling their stories, soldier on. Even if our invisible wars are always our own, and in some ways unknowable to others, there is at least some therapy in getting it out, in telling our stories. The telling of stories is what gets us through the struggle, and what ultimately allows us to negotiate a peace.
That, and by telling our stories, systematic change may prove possible, making this awful struggle less common and less grueling. The Invisible War has already forced some change to happen. After watching the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, made some great first steps in changing how sexual assault is dealt with in the military. This is only a start, but it’s something. I spoke with Kirby Dick about The Invisible War last month.
Tyler Malone: How did you decide to do a documentary on the subject of sexual assault in the military? It’s a pretty intense subject, and I’m just curious about how you found yourself making a film about it?
Kirby Dick: Well, when we started researching the subject, the numbers of women and men who had had experiences of this kind was just astounding. According to the Department of Defense’s own estimates, you have 19,000 servicemen and servicewomen sexually assaulted in the U.S. military in 2011 alone. That kind of level of numbers has been going on for decades, so you easily have hundreds of thousands of men and women. That, combined with the fact that the story was completely buried and covered up. Very few people knew a lot about it, and certainly not how widespread it has been. The third aspect that drew me to the story was how courageous these young servicemen and servicewomen were to want to serve their country, then how courageous they were after these horrific things happen to them to go to their superior officers and report, and then the military turned on them. This is a powerful story. This is a story again and again about these courageous people we want to be a part of our military, and how the military is actually in a way destroying them.
TM: How difficult was it to get so many women and men to come forward and be filmed discussing their stories?
KD: It was quite difficult, and you can imagine why. Most people don’t want to talk about these experiences. They don’t want to relive the experience, and often, in many cases, they still blame themselves to some degree. Also, since the military turned on so many of them when they reported the assaults, there are a number of them with a great deal of paranoia. We undertook an extensive outreach campaign to find these survivors. We ended up speaking to well over a hundred men and women who had been sexually assaulted, and recorded on camera somewhere between 40 and 50 of them. It was quite an emotional experience for both my producer Amy Ziering and myself. She was actually the person who would do the intake interviews, and spend hours on the phone with these men and women for the first time. When we actually did the one on one interviews, I thought it appropriate that she would do the interviews with the survivors. She was able to set up a very safe space.
TM: Did you plan on putting men in there from the beginning? Or how did that aspect enter into the story?
KD: Very early on we decided to include men. The reason for that was simple: if the stories of the hundreds of thousands of women who had been raped had been covered up, the same amount or more of men had been covered up even more so. We didn’t want to participate in that cover up. So very early on we decided to include men in our film. One of the things that was so tragic in the cases of the men we spoke to was that for many of them it was even more difficult for them. For many of them, it took decades for them to even tell anybody what had happened to them.
TM: Did you have specific goals in mind with this film in terms of enacting some sort of change? Or were you more worried about just telling the stories and making a great film?
KD: First and foremost, I am a filmmaker, so I wanted to make a very powerful film. Equally though, we wanted to make a film that would help change the situation. Once you talk to these men and women, and hear their stories, there’s just no way to not feel devastated that not only has this happened to them, but that it continues to happen on a far too regular basis. I think it’s nearly impossible to hear the stories and not want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the military. We designed this film not only to reach out to audiences, but also to reach policymakers in Washington D.C. We’ve been very successful at that.
TM: How did it all happen where Leon Panetta saw the film and enacted some sort of initial changes?
KD: The military has a long way to go, but that was a great first step. Part of what we did after Sundance was have a two-pronged campaign–what we call a grasstop and a grassroots campaign. The grassroots was to get the film shown in as many places across the country–before even the theatrical release–in churches, on bases, in various organizations, universities, etc. We made sure to get screenings for very powerful people in congress, in the military, in the administration, people who were high-ranking, some who had recently left their positions. We had ten screenings a month at least with very important people, all over the country, and it created an echo chamber in Washington. People kept hearing about it, people were talking about it, so Secretary Panetta felt compelled to see it. He knew about the film even before it premiered at Sundance, but he saw it later, and it certainly had an influence on him.
TM: Human sexuality in general is something you’ve focused on a lot in your films–whether from the film ratings side, or sex surrogates, or closeted politicians, or Catholic sex scandals–what is it about sex and sexuality that seems to draw you?
KD: Well, I think one of the major reasons is that it is often censored out of many things in our culture. So as a filmmaker and a journalist, I don’t want to be a part of that censorship. Another reason is that sexuality is so much a part of the human experience, and when I’m looking at a subject or subject matter, it adds a complexity that certainly as a filmmaker I’m drawn to. Also, I think there’s an edge between politics and sexuality that’s very interesting to explore, going both ways.
TM: In one of your previous films, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, you used a number of clips under fair use. I know you’re a fair use advocate. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about fair use and how you think it pertains to documentary filmmaking.
KD: Up until really about 5 or 6 years ago, documentary filmmaking was really impacted by the fact that there were so many clips that are such a part of our culture that couldn’t be used in film because the copyright holders were demanding such high fees. In essence they were censoring a critique by documentary film artists, and so there was a sort of legal strategy to reframe that. It was very successful. Fair use is enshrined in our constitution. So we went back to that, and the first film out of the gate that really made the case was my film This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Up until that point, most filmmakers had felt compelled to purchase clips of films from the studios at $10-15,000 a pop. Often times that’s just for 10 or 15 seconds. We ended up using around 132 to 134 clips, and we just went out with the argument that it was fair use, and if you disagree, you should come after us–and they didn’t. We had a very good attorney, and I was willing to fight the good fight, and I think it sort of broke open the door. Now it’s pretty much accepted that this is legal and it’s acceptable. Now many filmmakers utilize fair use, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m glad I was a part in opening that door.
TM: Who are some of your all-time favorite filmmakers?
KD: The filmmaker who would probably be my all-time favorite is Rainer Fassbinder. I’ve always found his ability to conflate a psychological examination with a political critique to be absolutely masterful. I personally think he’s the best post-WWII filmmaker.
TM: Besides your own film, do you have a favorite film of this year?
KD: You know, I quite liked Bernie. I don’t know if it’s my favorite film, but I found it interesting. What was especially interesting about that was that he interviewed real people, and the interviews were so accomplished. Even as an experienced documentary filmmaker, I was watching those interviews very enviously. How he was able to get these people to speak in the way that they did was incredible. I think the film is one of those rare films that could have and should have received some sort of award as a documentary film in addition to some sort of award as a feature film. I was extremely impressed with the filmmaking.
Kirby Dick is an Oscar-nominated director. His latest documentary is The Invisible War, about victims of sexual assault in the military.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Amber De Vos
Design by Jillian Mercado
Kirby Dick, MoMA, 11 West 53rd St., NYC, Tuesday, January 15, 2013, Photography by Amber De VOS for PatrickMcMullan.com