If there were an award for Film With Greatest Impact On Public Policy, the military-rape documentary "The Invisible War" would appear to be a shoo-in.
Among this year's other top entries for the documentary Oscar, "The Gatekeepers" can't claim an immediate impact on the Israeli government—and "Searching for Sugar Man" didn't force sudden moral upheaval in the music biz. But just two days after seeing "The Invisible War," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a significant change in military policy. That's the documentary equivalent of a box office blockbuster.
Talking with TheWrap's founder and editor-in-chief, Sharon Waxman at TheWrap Screening Series at the Sundance Cinemas Wednesday night, producer Amy Ziering acknowledged that "Invisible War" had already had an impact beyond just about any documentarian's wildest dreams. But she was clearly unhappy that the changes her film has compelled don't go nearly far enough toward ending the epidemic of sexual assault in the armed forces.
A series of Washington, D.C. salons and screenings for military commanders created a "pressure that led to Secretary Panetta seeing the film and holding the press conference announcing this first, initial somewhat-change—which is a good first step," Ziering said. "We’re not thrilled with it, but it’s not bad. At least it’s something."
The filmmakers are advocating for the prosecution of military rapes to be taken out of the military chain of command entirely, while Panetta only announced that these prosecutorial decisions would no longer be left in the hands of victims' and perpetrators' immediate supervisors.
"Anecdotally, we were told over and over again while making the film that you’ll never get it [the decision to investigate and prosecute rape] out of the unit commanders," Ziering pointed out. "So that at least was a promising first start."
The statistics in "Invisible War" are staggering: Out of more than 3,000 cases of sexual assault in a given year in the U.S. military — and those are just the ones that victimized service women (and men) were brave enough to report — fewer than 200 ended with a perpetrator doing time.
The documentary puts a tear-streaked face on those stats by focusing on five women whose lives were upended after their stories of rape (sometimes serial rape) by superiors or colleagues were dismissed. A crawl at the end of the film explains how their attackers not only were not prosecuted but in some cases were promoted or won honors like "airman of the year."
The only comic relief comes when the filmmakers include footage from the defense department's training films about sexual assault, which include advice to female soldiers not to walk alone, and catchy rock jingles saying that real men turn each other in.
You can imagine how much more effective mandatory screenings of "The Invisible War" itself would be before military audiences. As Ziering told it, that is just what has started to happen.
"About a month ago, we went to D.C., and (a lawyer seen in the film) said, 'Did you guys hear? General (Mark) Welsh, the head of the air force, flew in all the wing commanders–135 from around the globe–to watch your movie inside the Pentagon.' And from what I heard, at the end two of the women stood up and said, 'It happened to us and we never reported it.' At which point he said, 'Okay, everybody under you must either watch the entire film or watch excerpts.' And the order is for everybody under the commanders to do the same, all the way down. That’s pretty remarkable. I don’t think it ever happened before or that it’ll ever happen again."
The film has received high profile on Capital Hill since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival just over a year ago. During the Senate confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, he was asked if he had seen "Invisible War," and he answered that he had. More significantly, there have been House hearings on this very issue that frequently invoked the movie. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had been trying since 2005 to reverse the war-time waiver that had allowed recruits with sexual assult records to join up. "It just got passed two months ago. And Boxer said that the traction for that was because of the film," the producer noted.
It helps that, although the film certainly tweaks the upper levels of the armed forces for their approach toward sexual assault, it hardly comes off as some leftist broadside. "I want to say most men and women in the military are horrified by this, and they’re thankful that we made the film," Ziering said. "We appealed to their humanity, and we didn’t make an anti-military film. We pointed out ways that it can get better. This doesn’t have to happen."
At The Wrap's screening, during the audience Q&A, one attendee expressed her frustration that, although she appreciated the film, she felt angry that it hadn't revealed the identities of the rapists who had turned the worlds of the main characters upside-down.
"You can make a movie that outs all the people you want and I wish you luck, but we chose this strategy," Ziering responded. The filmmakers did think about including a storyline in which they would track down one of the attackers who has gone on to thrive in the military, but they thought better of it.
"We decided …that we did not want to intentionally out four or five people, because then we ran the fear that the audience would feel sated and it would become like a Hollywood gotcha movie, and nothing would really happen," she said. "Now that the joint chiefs have seen it, they know how to find these guys, if they want to. There weren’t that many 'airmen of the year' the year that Jessica was (raped). But it’s not about those few guys. We wanted the anger and the focus to stay on the commanders. This is not going to change if we out them and people feel like 'Okay, we’ve got four guys—done, we can all go home and feel safe.'"
The filmmakers were also inspired, as it were, by another scandal. "We took a page from the Catholic Church (controversy). When the focus was on the priests, nothing happened. When the Boston Globe moved it to the bishops and said 'You’re accountable for what happens in your diocese, and we’re gonna come down on you as much as we come down on the priests,' there started to be change. So you really have to hit things at the pressure points of power."
But "Invisible War" would hardly work as pure polemic, and attendees at the Wrap screening were eager to hear of the psychological states of the featured women since filming wrapped up.
Ziering said that, although she usually prefers to keep a distance from documentary subjects, she felt compelled to help set up a therapy program specifically geared toward survivors of sexual assault in the military. A test run of that program is happening with a group that includes at least one of the film's subjects this week in Santa Barbara, with graduation scheduled for Sunday. If the results seem promising, others from among the doc's "stars" will take part in a second round this summer, and it could become a permanent program.
"The nature of the trauma is so debilitating that it doesn’t breed advocates," said Ziering. "These women and men are worried about brushing their teeth in the morning, and I’m not being hyperbolic. So this is not a community of people that are going to be out there fighting for truth and justice and their rights. They’re kinda just trying to figure out how the hell to get their s— together and get through the day. And a lot of them don’t even know this happened to other people. If you’re 17 or 18 and this happens to you, you’re not believed, you can’t report, you get repeatedly raped, you can’t leave, you’re caught in this kind of Kafka-eseque situation, and you’re not getting any trauma treatment, you start going crazy. They don’t have the language with all the sophistication or outside help to even comprehend it. That’s why it’s gone on for decades."
(Photos by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for TheWrap)