"We had so many stories to tell," says Kirby Dick, director of "The Invisible War." "We didn’t want people to walk away and think this was an experience of two or three or four men or women who’d been assaulted. We wanted people to understand that this was something that was occurring overseas, back home, in every single branch of the military. It’s a complete epidemic, and we wanted to convey that."
The invisible war referred to in the film is the ongoing problem of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military. The film has been nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Dick – a previous nominee in this category for "Twist of Faith" (2004) – and his producing partner, Amy Ziering, reached out to over 100 men and women in order to tell their story, a task that was easier said than done.
"These men and women live all across the country, and in many ways were very reluctant to talk," says Dick. "They’re somewhat afraid that their perpetrators would come after them. Others had the experience of the military turning on them and investigating them, and they faced severe consequences. That may have made them initially unwilling to speak. Once they started talking to us and started realizing that we believed them completely and understood what they went through, they were willing to do these interviews.
"Amy did most of the interviews," continues Dick. "We felt this was the right thing to do because most of these survivors were women, and they were talking about this very traumatic personal assault. She did a phenomenal job; she was able to create a very, very safe environment for them."
"It was intense," says Ziering about the process. "I think I entered into it too naively, not understanding the depths of difficulty it would entail. Honestly, it was life changing. It deeply affects you. I’m not a trained therapist, and I’d never done a project that required this kind of intensive experience with people that had undergone radical trauma."
"One of the things she was able to do was make them feel really, really safe," says Dick. "I remember one situation where she was interviewing Kori [Cioca], and she broke down crying; Amy got up, put her arms around her and said, 'You’re safe here. No one will harm you.' Later on, she told us no one had ever said that to her before. In many ways, these interviews are the soul of the movie, and Amy was able to elicit these really intimate, very powerful stories because she was able to make our subjects feel safe."
Yet speaking with the survivors wasn’t the only challenge presented the filmmakers. "The other challenge was getting interviews with people who work within the military, particularly within the military justice system, and have seen these kinds of abuses and outrage going on," says Dick. "There were many, many people who, off the record, would go into great detail about what was wrong and what wasn’t working, but as soon as we went on the record, they would really soft-pedal their critique. It took some time to find people courageous enough to step forward and really talk about what’s going on."
Dick and Ziering hope that the film will help obliterate instances of rape within the military. "It’s not an unreasonable aspiration," says Ziering. "It’s absolutely something that the military can do. If it becomes standard to prosecute these perpetrators, then these numbers will dramatically decline. It’s not an ephemeral demand; it’s actually something within their reach."
"The second thing we want is for this film to be a form of healing for the survivors," continues Ziering. "Every single screening we get letters and emails from survivors saying, 'It changed my life. I didn’t know that people cared, and I now know that I’m not alone anymore. I’m not invisible.'"