February 4, 2013 by abbyo
In an early chapter of the book “Reel Spirituality,” theology professor Robert K. Johnston writes about the profoundly transformative power films can have on their audiences. Johnston cites some real-life examples, including Christoph Meili, a former Swiss bank guard who, after being deeply moved by the movies “Schindler’s List” and “The Boat is Full,” saved several ledgers detailing Jewish property seized by the Nazis in WWII from destruction by his employer. Johnston’s point is that cinema can change lives—not just in a minor, superficial sense, as with fashion devotees copying Audrey Hepburn or Faye Dunaway, but in a radical, society-altering way.
Kirby Dick’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Invisible War” is one such movie. Dick’s subject is the stunningly high frequency of sexual assault in the U.S. military. How high? Try an estimated 16,180 assaults in the last year, and 20% of female veterans raped while serving. The film not only sheds light on a shocking, criminally underreported side of the military, but takes such an all-encompassing view of the long-term effects of rape on its subjects, and such a compassionate stance that you can’t help but feel outraged.
There are many heartbreaking aspects of the stories told here, including physical damage and emotional fallout that affects families as much as the victims themselves (the husbands and partners of these men and women are living saints). But the most painful is the sense of betrayal the film captures. These are people who love their country and loved serving it, only to be betrayed by an institution they believed would take care of them. In case after case, women report sexual assault and are penalized for adultery, or told they were tempting fate. They fall victim further still to an in-house form of justice often served by superiors who know the rapists or, in some cases, are even the ones responsible for the assault.
Given the director’s resume—Dick is the guy who made the Michael Moore-ish “This Film is Not Yet Rated”—and “The Invisible War’s” incendiary subject matter, it’s especially impressive that the film never gets overly self-righteous. Instead, there’s a brutal honesty that comes directly from the courageous people willing to go on the record. Those on the other side of the issue, namely Department of Defense representatives, come off as easy targets, but let’s face it, when the subject is rape, it’s pretty hard to make it a two-sided issue.
“The Invisible War” is a respectful, sensitive movie about a difficult subject. Given the Department of Defense’s recent lifting of the ban on women serving in combat roles, the film couldn’t be timelier. The D.O.D.’s proclamation that this is a big step forward for women is drastically undercut when you consider the backwards approach to gender integration that this film presents. This is the kind of movie that gets people fired up to speak out and demand change. In fact, the movie’s epilogue states that after it was screened for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, he made changes to the military’s legal procedures. It’s a small gesture, but a step in the right direction, and a nice statement on the importance of good film making. This is the kind of issues-based documentary that deserves attention and respect, which it now has in the form of an Oscar nod.