‘The Invisible War’ Producer Amy Ziering On Sexual Assault in the Military, Rape’s Impact on Men, and Film and Social Change

The Invisible War, the Kirby Dick-directed documentary about the sexual assault epidemic in the military, was one of the best movies I saw at Sundance. Its exploration of the culture of which scandals like the Tailhook case are just a symptom is powerful. And the movie takes on a rarely-discussed subject, how sexual assault affects men both as victims and as through their wives’, daughters’, and parents’ trauma. The Invisible War is a difficult movie to watch, but it’s a moving and bracing one, and it’s helped spark a national conversation about the damage done by indifference and abdications of responsibility within the chain of command. I spoke to the movie’s producer, Amy Ziering, about finding men and women who were willing to come forward about to share their stories, and how the military can lead society—if it decides it wants to change. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I’m curious how both of you came to this subject matter.

We read an article in Salon about four or five years ago, and we were kind of shocked and appalled by what we’d read, and started doing our own investigating, and found [the story] was correct if not worse. Of course, we’d been aware of things like Tailhook and Aberdeen, and these scandals that were reported in the press. But we hadn’t been aware that it was an ongoing problem in the way that it was. The statistics were one of the things the article helped us point us towards. These flare-ups that were reported in the press as these one-off situations were symptoms of an underlying chronic condition. They would get attention when there was this cluster issue that rose to the surface. It’s misperceived in that way…It’s served the military and promoted what we we have called a coverup. Its ideal situtation is [assaults are] presented as a strange, aberrant occurrance as opposed to something that’s ongoing and daily. They do temporary damage control and everything moves on.

How did you find your subjects? Given the consequences women often face for speaking out about being sexually assaulted, it couldn’t have been easy.

We did extensive investigative work. we went to VA centers and put out flyers. we talked to everyone who was an advocate in any way, we used social media, we had a Facebook page. One reason this issue hasn’t come forward is it doesn’t breed naturally outspoken advocates. The nature of the trauma is so severe and radically debilitating that people are reticent to speak up because of the retaliation they’ve experienced, and because of the difficulties they’re having in their day to day lives. It’s hard to become an activist when you can barely get out of bed…That was a very long process. By the time we decided who we were going forward with as our main subjects, we built a good, trusting relationship. We were careful to preselect people who we thought would have the stability, wherewithal, fortitude to handle public scrutiny when the film came out. The last thing we wanted this to do was negatively affect anybody. Any interview, we said your mental health comes first, we can stop and start.

How have they reacted to seeing the movie?

Hugely positively. It’s been life-changing just to feel like they’re not alone, they have this community, and to feel suported and believed. That’s a huge difference to someone who’s been marginalized. Two of them said it saved their marriage. Many of them, when they’ve shown relatives, the change in the relatives’ attitudes really improved all their family relations…We’ve had several people offer to fix Kori’s jaw, and we have three families that have banded together to undertake that.

One of the things I loved about The Invisible War was the way it included men in the conversation—I think rape is often presented as “a women’s issue,” when of course men can be victims, and men are influenced by the trauma inflicted on rape survivors.

It was definitely strategic and conscious that we wanted to have men in the film. Statistically, there are the same number of men raped as women, but we wanted to focus on women strategically. Women can lead the charge on this. We were calculating on trying to find survivors with parents or husbands or brothers. We wanted to change the idea that rape is a women’s issues. Men and women respond very strongly to Ben Klay, and Rob, and Hannah’s dad, Jerry. Those stood out to me as one of the most changing moments for them. It’s maybe easier to identify with the pain of a survivor rather than a survivor themselves if you in the audience aren’t a survivor yourself. You always know what it is to care for a loved one. We were careful to include male generals. We made an effort to find men in the military who would speak out on this issue because to change things, everyone’s got to change.

It was much more difficult to find the men. Once we found them, obviously they self-selected, but finding men who would talk about it was much, much more difficult. There’s so much stigma involved. I want to be sure what I say that most men in the military are horrified by this. I don’t want this to be perceived as “all men in the miliary are running around perpetrating these crimes.” Most men in the military when they see the film or become aware of it are extremely angry and want to take steps to effect change, and are grateful that the film’s given them a perspective to understand these things when it happens.

Do you think it’s that you’re giving them permission to be angry or sad? Or language to use to express their feelings?

Something that Arianna [Klay] said last night, we had a screening on the hill, and she said she had never seen Ben cry, and it’s very hard in the movie for her to watch Ben crying. I think you’re right about there not being a vocabulary or public wherewithal for men to feel comfortable. You have all these very strong men who are able to articulate [their feelings] emotionally and not be ashamed.

Do you think military officials like [Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta or Dr. Kay Whitley, the former director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, really believe they have a system that works?

We really, really want to get across that the military needs to own this issue, that it needs to address it in a sincere way, to not cover it up, but to look at it and say “look at the damage this is causing.” We’re getting more losses from this than we are from our combat situation. I think there’s this disconnect, that what happens in the military is a microcosm of society at large and rape happens in society at large. No. It’s different. The ramifications and the prosecution of perpetrators is not commensurate to what goes on in civilian life. The treatment of survivors is not commensurate to what goes on in civilian life. They need to see that. And that’s the big change. Once they do, they can take this on and be leaders. They did it in the forties, fifties, and sixties. Racism in the military was worse than in society at large. They decided to take it on and they succeeded, and became a beacon. We would like that. We think they could really make great strides—and I know that sounds crazy—be leaders in social integration and gender equality and women’s rights. All of the women in the film credit the military a great deal: it gave me certain values, it gave me great training, it gave me camraderie. They want it to be a better, stronger military.

How do you start to build anew? Is rape culture so tied to other elements of military culture that it’s undetachable?

You start with the commanders. Any time I talk to anybody, and I say tell me about your career in military, the difference has been the commander. Any interview, I can underline the section where they say that. The commanders have to be accountable. They have to run a tight ship where it’s clear they don’t tolerate that kind of behavior, and if they misbehave, they will be duly and appropriately punished. Unlike other structures, it’s very heirarchical, it’s very insittutional, and people do what they’re told. It’s a problem that maybe can’t be eliminated, but can be greatly, greatly reduced. With that, the culture does change. It really does.