"The Invisible War," a devastating documentary about the tens of thousands of sexual assaults that take place within the U.S. military every year, has already had an effect on policy even before its release on Friday.
Within days of seeing the film in April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a crucial change in the way in which reported rapes will be investigated in the military – and he told one of the film's executive producers that the screening was partly responsible for his decision.
Then, last month, a major general who appears in the film as a defender of the way the military has handled the cases – and who in the process appeared to be a rather clueless apologist for a badly broken system – was replaced.
And attention to the issue has continued to grow both in the media and in Congress, where a number of bills have been introduced to deal with the issue.
"We made the film to help change policy," writer-director Kirby Dick told TheWrap on Monday. "We just didn't think it would happen this soon."
The documentary, which was made by Dick and producers Amy Ziering and Tanner King Barklow and is being distributed by Cinedigm and Docurama Films, screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the weekend. On Tuesday, the filmmakers will be in Washington, where they will hold a screening on Capitol Hill for members of Congress and their staffs.
"The Invisible War" collects the stories of dozens of rape and assault victims, most but not all of them women, who were attacked by fellow servicemen while on duty. Their stories tell of a military bureaucracy that protected the perpetrators and often ostracized or ignored the victims.
Of the more than 19,000 sexual assaults estimated by the Department of Defense to have taken place last year, fewer than 14 percent are reported to authorities. Less than half of those are referred for disciplinary action, and only 191 perpetrators – less than six percent of those accused – were convicted or court-martialed.
When the film debuted at Sundance in January, wrote TheWrap's Sharon Waxman, "it exploded with the power of suppressed fury." The film went on to win the Audience Award for documentary and later screened at the Tribeca Film Festival before coming to LAFF.
But Dick and Ziering also set their sights on a different audience, the director said.
"Once the film won the audience award at Sundance, we decided to embark on a campaign to get this film seen at the highest levels of the Pentagon, in Congress, at the Department of Defense," he said. "The way we did this was by having dozens of private screenings for retired generals, active-duty officers, officers' wives' clubs and veterans groups, to start the buzz around the film. But we also went wider than that, to corporate leaders and nonprofit leaders and people high up in the media that interact with the Pentagon."
Also: Watch a video of the film's veterans speaking to TheWrap at Sundance. (Story continues below)
In April, Secretary of Defense Panetta viewed the film — and two days later, according to Ziering, he held a press conference to announce changes in the military's policy toward the prosecution of rapes.
Panetta changed the policy that the unit commander would decide whether to move ahead with the investigation and prosecution of reported assaults, a policy specifically identified in the film as placing the decision in the hands of commanders who work with, and are often close friends of, the accused.
Under the new policy, the decision will rest higher up the chain of command, at the level of colonel (or, in the Navy, captain).
According to Dick, Panetta later ran into one of the film's executive producers, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, at the White House Correspondents Dinner. "He thanked her for making the film, said he was very moved by it, and told her that he had held the press conference in part because the film had made such an impact on him," Dick said.
But while the filmmakers welcome the change, both Ziering and Dick say it isn't enough. "By moving the decision up but leaving it in the chain of command, a lot of the problems that you get at the unit commander level still exist," Dick said.
"They might be somewhat mitigated, but they're still definitely there in terms of conflict of interest. The decision absolutely must be moved outside the chain of command, to an independent arbiter who has no relationship to the perpetrator or to the victim."
One of the bills currently before Congress, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), would move the decision to investigate and prosecute completely out of the military and put it under civilian control.
(Speier also gives a five-minute speech before the House of Representatives each week, telling the story of another soldier who was sexually assaulted, and promises to do so until Congress takes action. She is currently up to 20 weeks.)
"There would certainly be benefits to moving it outside the military, but given where the military is right now, I don’t think we can really achieve that at this point," Dick said. "What is achievable is to take it outside of the chain of command, but leave it in the military justice system."
Last week, another decision came down involving the film. Major Gen.eral Mary Kay Hertog, who headed the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), and whose efforts appear in the film to be misguided at best and come perilously close to blaming the victims at worst, was replaced in her position at SAPRO by another major general.
Neither filmmaker said that the change at SAPRO was tied to the imminent release of the film, though Ziering said that she had been asked to do so by an armed forces reporter when the news broke.
"I'm not going to gloat about it," she said, "but the timing is interesting."
The key to real change, said Dick, is to involve the highest-ranking members of the military in the effort to change things — four-star generals, not two-star generals. "What they're doing is good," he said, "but they're trying to fix it around the edges, when they have to take it on with the force they use to fight a war.
"And we need to focus on it at the four-star level. It's the joint chiefs of staff who have to take on this issue."
The joint chiefs, he added, are aware of the problem. "I don’t know how much I can say about this," he said, "but several members of the joint chiefs have seen the film. We know for a fact. At the very minimum, several members of the joint chiefs."
And because of the structure of the military, Dick is convinced that the armed forces can in fact go after serial perpetrators in their ranks, and hold commanders accountable.
"The changes are achievable," he said. "The bright spot is that because the military is such a hierarchical organization, it can change much faster than civilian society."
He points to racism, which was rampant in the military in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. "It was a pernicious problem, and the military realized how destructive it was to the fighting force. And over a 10-year period, they undertook a campaign to significantly reduce it.
"Racism in the military had been much worse than in civilian society, but after 10 years it was much better. So they can do the same thing with sexual assault as well."
"The Invisible War" opens on Friday in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and San Francisco, with an expansion planned for additional markets. But the filmmakers are already looking beyond its theatrical, home video, VOD and television lives; to continue to push for the changes advocated in the film, they have formed a coalition of nonprofit groups — women's groups, veterans' groups, sexual assault groups, civil rights groups — under an umbrella called Invisible No More, at the website NotInvisible.org.
"I haven't had a film make this kind of impact before," said Dick, whose previous films include "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," "Outrage" and the Oscar-nominated "Twist of Faith."
"To have a film screen at a film festival and then have the Secretary of Defense respond to it by calling a press conference and changing policy is very unusual," he said. "This is just the beginning, but it's very significant."