Last year’s Oscar-nominated The Invisible War exposed the rape epidemic in the American military, leading Defense Secretary Larry Panetta to make prompt changes to how the military investigates sexual assault, inspiring congressional hearings in both houses, and inciting a cascade of support and outrage from civilians and military personnel across the globe. Chuck Hagel, confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as new Defense Secretary, has now called the issue the second most important for the Department of Defense after Afghanistan. We interviewed the film’s writer and director Kirby Dick about the film’s reception, his continuing involvement in the rippling political response, and what he hopes is still to come.
Just like everybody else, I was moved and horrified by The Invisible War. But what really excited me was how the film seemed to be doing what I think many documentary filmmakers set out to do. You’re changing policy! Has this been surprising?
We knew we had come across something very explosive that had been covered up for a long time. So we were pretty hopeful it would really make an impact in terms of making people aware of the issue. But we didn’t expect the kind of change that this has really caused–it’s been remarkable, and it’s continuing. Not only did Panetta change policy few days after seeing it, but it’s played role in causing hearings in both the House and Senate. We also know that the film has been seen by at least 250,000 military members, and the military is using it as part of its training. Many if not most generals have seen it.
I knew you were pushing for it to be a part of training–but you’re saying that’s now happened?
Yes. It’s become a reference point for the issue.
So is it safe to say the reaction is beyond what you expected?
Ha… Well, we expected the military to respond how it always has: deny, then discredit the victims, then claim the issue is localized to a particular base and/or group of people. I think Panetta was more responsive than other secretaries of defense might have been, but also the film was so unassailable.
How’d the idea for the film come to you?
I read an article by Helen Benedict then started doing more research. It didn’t take much to know it was going to be very powerful.
Do you find yourself involved in an ongoing conversation with policymakers and officials at this point–do they reach out to you?
Very much so. I meet with senators, with people in Pentagon. I’m very involved in trying to continue to change policy, because while the changes they’ve made have been important–they’ve prioritized the educational aspect [of the film]–there are certain structural changes we’re pushing hard for. The most important is taking the decision to investigate and prosecute these crimes and moving it out of the chain of command. Panetta did elevate the task of investigating and prosecuting from the level of commander to the level of colonel, but it needs to be removed from the change of command altogether. Until they make that structural change, there will be significant underreporting, and as long as you have that, you’ll have assaults, and serial offenders.
You credit Panetta’s seeing the film for his decision to make that change–how do you know the film was the reason?
My producer undertook a strategic and ambitious plan, organizing a series of screenings for people who were highly placed–former members of the military, members of congress, corporations, news outlets. I think it was thirty screenings over several months. So these people were seeing it, and we knew they were talking. I’m sure he was hearing from people during that time. So when he finally did see it, we learned through another one of our producers who talked to him at the White House Correspondents’ dinner how moved he was by it. And you know, Hagel has also now seen it and has said it’s the second most important issue for the DOD after Afghanistan. You have to realize that two years ago it wasn’t even in the top ten.