INVISIBLE WAR, THE
(The Invisible War world premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Documentary Audience Award. It is being distributed by Cinedigm and Docurama Films and opens theatrically on Friday, June 22, 2012. Visit the film’s official website to learn more. NOTE: This review was first posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012, as a Pick of the Week at the Filmmaker Magazine blog.)
There are “important” movies, and then there is The Invisible War. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s investigative documentary about sexual abuse in the American military exposes a heretofore under-reported systematic horror show of unfathomable proportions. To watch it as an innocent civilian is to admit compliance in a crime that you didn’t even know had been committed (now multiply that concept by hundreds). While it cannot be argued that this stands firmly as an example of agenda-based filmmaking, considering the agenda on display, it comes off as an act of outright bravery. I dare the most stubborn, staunchest defenders of so-called “American values” and the American military to watch The Invisible War and not demand that something be changed. This issue isn’t a red/blue or male/female or pro-military/anti-military one. It’s a human one. And it’s f**king infuriating.
Just how pervasive is sexual abuse in the American military? From the statistics reported here—the most disturbing of which are provided by the Department of Defense itself—the numbers are sickening. Here is just one example (taken from the film’s press release and attributed to the DoD): “Prosecution rates for sexual predators are astoundingly low—in 2011, officials received 3,192 sexual assault reports. But only 1,518 of those reports led to referrals for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members were convicted at courts-martial.” The DoD goes on to estimate that less than 14% of survivors report being assaulted. You do the math. Or maybe don’t, as it will likely make you want to vomit or punch something in the face.
The way the system is set up, when an individual joins the military, he or she is effectively giving up his or her right to complain or sue or seek justice if and when a sexual assault occurs. Because, get this: getting raped while serving one’s country has been legally defined as an “occupational hazard”?!?!? While one can understand the desire for the United States armed services to present themselves as a powerful force of stability, what they don’t seem to understand is that brushing incidents such as these under the rug undermines their credibility and authority (see also: the Catholic Church). Dick and Ziering’s film is a challenge to the powers-that-be, as well as a wake-up call to innocent civilians to rise up against those powers-that-be and demand they start doing the right thing right now.
As effective as all of these statistics are, nothing replaces a first-hand account from a survivor. The Invisible War contains more than enough personal testimonies to paint a harrowing, depressing picture. And while the onslaught of women (and one man, for this problem transcends gender lines) who share their painful stories becomes almost too much to bear, perhaps the most powerful one doesn’t come from an actual victim. Seaman Recruit Hannah Sewell’s father, Sergeant Major Jerry Sewell, a lifelong military man draped in his uniform, tells of the day he received a call from his daughter. As his disbelieving fury opens still raw emotional floodgates, he explains how she told him of her assault and that she was no longer a virgin. His impassioned, tearful response is more crushingly effective than any statistic could ever be.
A closing title card reveals that the current theatrical cut of The Invisible War has been updated since its Sundance premiere. On April 14th, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched the film. Two days later, he updated a previous law, now directing military commanders to hand over all sexual assault investigations to a higher-ranking colonel (‘cause, you know, in many cases the person the victim would be reporting to would be the person who committed the sexual assault). Nice try, Mr. Panetta, but that’s not good enough. These cases must, must, must be tried through the civilian court system, removed from the protected shell of the self-preserving military infrastructure. To continue treating this problem in this manner is shameful, despicable, uncivilized, and wholly un-American. The Invisible War is truly vital viewing.
— Michael Tully