2012 has become a year for earth-shaking documentaries. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In stunned and angered me at Sundance this year and now The Invisible War– which also took it’s first bow in Park City– has done the same at this week’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering take an unflinching look at the epidemic of rape in the armed forces and the broken institutional culture that allows sexual predators free access to what one expert in the documentary calls a “target rich environment”. The film mixes the harrowing personal tales of several ex-military personnel, not all of whom are women, with the on camera testimony of former military prosecutors frustrated with the system. Also in the mix are current military officials who appear to exist solely on a continuum of dangerously clueless to willfully obtuse.
Two Defense Department flacks come off particularly poorly in the footage that Dick and Ziering share. Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta’s blink rate was so extreme it brought to mind the old adage that liars blink more than those who are telling the truth. Studies have brought that into question, and anyone who has sat under camera lights knows how they can play havoc with your usual expressiveness, but the officer just does not project real confidence in his defense of the Navy’s handling of the criminal investigations of rape cases in the way he carries himself. To his credit he does not come off nearly as badly as Dr. Kaye Whitley, the former point person for the Defense Department on sexual abuse who the filmmakers manage to paint as a clueless, out of touch bubblehead. Nor does it appear to be a hatchet job by Dick and Ziering. There are some questions you need to have an answer beyond “I don’t know” when the subject is rape.
The filmmakers lay out a compelling case that the military is coddling sex offenders. The motivation appears to be saving face of those in positions of authority and an almost pathological fear that female service members use allegations of rape as a political tool. The damning conclusion the film reaches is that this unwillingness to give the issue the full weight it deserves creates an environment where serial sexual predators are able to hide in plain sight, and in so doing erode the effectiveness of the armed forces. The implication is in place by the time the last reel unspools: many of these rapes are preventable if the military would only choose to weed out the predators in their midst.
Dick and Ziering would be unable to make their case without the courageous selflessness of the women and men who are willing to share their stories on screen. How anyone could bear witness to their testimony and assume that they were seeking personal advantage is beyond me. These are people willing to unveil deep pain and shame, many of whom endure suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless they are willing to expose themselves so that others might one day know justice. They posses the very values we profess to admire in our military “heroes” and yet our military institutions treat them like trash.
I spent a great deal of time watching The Invisible War with fists clenched. More than once the film elicited gasps and murmurs of shame from the audience. Like Jarecki’s The House I Live In this is one of those documentaries that should be mandatory viewing for every citizen. The sexual predators allowed to roam free in the military are a problem for more than our armed forces– they are a moral stain on our nation. It is, after all, our tax dollars that are keeping these monsters in human form fed, sheltered, and free to prey on honorable men and women who have chosen to serve their country. Moreover: it is to our towns and cities that they return when they finally do leave service. Unpunished and emboldened to strike again.
The film is an effective call to action: as a society we cannot afford to let rape stand as an “occupational hazard” of military service as the civilian courts have ruled. While it is beyond uncomfortable to look directly at, to ignore these crimes is to surrender our society to the kind of corruption from which it may never recover.
The Invisible War enters release this Friday, June 22nd in New York, LA, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston and is distributed by Cinedigm an Docurama Films.