Invisible War Director Kirby Dick on the Healing Power of Film

Kirby Dick

Filmmaker Kirby Dick

The Invisible War (airing May 13 on Independent Lens) could hardly be broadcasting on a more relevant week. On Tuesday, the Pentagon released a report that showed a spike in military sexual assaults. It estimated 26,000 military members were assaulted in fiscal year 2012, up from 3,374 in 2011. This was announced two days after an air force officer in charge of sexual assault prevention was himself arrested for sexual battery.

Filmmaker Kirby Dick hoped The Invisible War would gather a critical mass of attention on the epidemic of sexual assault in the military and change policy. Already, since the making of his film, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta transferred the power to prosecute sexual assault from the level of unit commander to colonel. Still, Kirby Dick says we have a long way to go before the military justice system is truly just.

Watch Coming to Independent Lens: The Invisible War on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

We hope it will effect lasting changes in the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assault crimes and supports and cares for assault survivors.

What led you to make this film?

The Invisible War

The Invisible War

We read an article in Salon several years ago which led us to start doing our own investigating and research. The more we delved into the issue the more shocked and horrified we were by what we were uncovering and the more committed we became to making this film and getting this story out.


What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

There were a number of extremely large challenges. Finding and gaining the trust of survivors was difficult, and it took a long time to secure permission to conduct a series of interviews with officials within the Pentagon. Creatively, it was difficult to figure out how to craft a film that could succinctly and clearly explicate the issue in all its nuanced complexity while also telling a compelling and powerful narrative story that would profoundly move audiences.

The Invisible War

The Invisible War

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Prior to meeting them, Amy [Ziering, producer] spent a lot of time on the phone with them and she’s a very compassionate, patient, and empathetic listener. This helped to initially forge a positive connection and we were very careful throughout our working with them to always make sure they felt comfortable, safe, and supported. Their mental health always took precedence over any and all of our filming imperatives or ambitions. We made that very clear and really honored this self-imposed cardinal rule and I think this also helped to create a very safe space for us to all work together in.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

We filmed an amazing retreat that some of our subjects participated in. It was coordinated and funded by a handful of survivors who had decided to try and self-fashion some type of therapeutic event. It was very moving to see this group of women who didn’t know each other beforehand come together to attempt to heal themselves and one another without really the means, resources, or assistance of trained professionals. We also did extensive filming of two survivors out in Colorado who were undergoing equine therapy thanks to the charitable efforts of a Vietnam veteran who just offered this program for free to fellow veterans.

Producer Amy Ziering

Producer Amy Ziering

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

It’s really hard to choose — I was extremely moved by all the survivors testimonies of course, and greatly effected by the interviews we did with Jerry Sewell (Hannah’s dad) and Ben Klay (Ariana’s husband). Those were exceptionally intense and memorable events for all of us.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

Audience response has been tremendous. We won the Audience Award at Sundance and Best Doc at Seattle — and repeatedly receive standing ovations. People afterwards are outraged and moved and compelled to want to take action and help. It’s been very gratifying and inspiring. Most of the people in the film have seen it — and they have been very, very pleased — they all have said the experience of participating in the film has significantly changed their lives for the better — it’s been surprising therapeutic and empowering — they no longer feel invisible and discarded and ashamed. They feel validated and it’s renewed their faith and trust in others.

Producer Amy Ziering and Director Kirby Dick

Producer Amy Ziering and Director Kirby Dick

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

That’s a good question. Anger, fear, depression — and it’s too late for med school.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

We’re big supporters of public television — it’s so important for our society to have a means to share a common discourse that is not corporate sponsored or produced. It’s essential for the health and sanity of our ever shrinking democracy. Additionally, given that the military is the army of the people, it seems only apt that our film airs on public television.

What are your three favorite films?

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches
In a Year of 13 Moons
The Memory Thief

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Get up early.

The Invisible War premieres Monday, May 13, 2013 at 10pm (check local listings).

This entry was posted in Interview, The Making Of... and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

View Talkback Guidelines >>

  • scott lindsey

    good interview

  • Gary Kline

    _Every_ young woman should be required to be proficient in one school of the martial arts before she enlists.

    • Kenny Chaffin

      Wrong answer. This is not a problem that is the fault of the woman. This should never happen.

    • MRASoldier

      You do realize that men are victims more than women in the militay, you do realize that women are just as capable of the same crimes(take a look at women teachers) and you do realize that women lie

  • Gary Kline

    When there are more than one assailant, at least One would come away seriously hurt. I wouldn’t be so foolish as to presume to have _the_ answer. Maybe something that would be part of a solution.

  • Gary Kline

    what good would posting the names of _anyone_ do? It seems to me that the “world’s oldest profession”–as seen by the males– and the “world’s oldest brutality.” more to the point, it boils down to acts of supposed power
    and stupidity.

  • EvaV

    I won’t be going to any Memorial Day parades this year for obvious reasons.

  • John Reinke

    My sincere thanks to Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering for their efforts in producing this extremely impactful and disturbing video. My thanks also to all those who were raped and sexually assaulted, who participated in the film.

    One of the facts that stuck with me from the video was that in 25% of the cases, the victim’s commanding officer was the offender! Another horrible statistic was that over 20% of female Veterans have reported surviving sexual assault.

    I have written to my senators and representative, demanding that they take action to see that our military justice systems are reformed so as to more effectively deal with these problems.

  • Sébastien A

    Firstly, I believe only the names of convicted criminals are allowed by law to be published. And since most of the perpetrators are not convicted, they are protected.
    Secondly, even if the filmmakers had decided to “name names”, the problem is much more widespread than the men who assaulted the victims interviewed in the film. You could easily end up in a situation where the authorities in charge would simply go after those men and say “job done”, while ignoring the larger issue.

  • jazzlover

    Thank you for an excellent documentary on sexual abuse in the military. In our newspaper there was an article about sexual abuse in the military. The subtitle stated: “There seems to be few clear solutions to problem.” President Obama stated: “Sexual offenders need to be prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorable dischared, Period.”
    I would add that these sexual offenders also need to have surgery done so they are rendered impotent. Otherwise, they will continue to sexually abuse others. If the military does not know what to do about this problem, I could give them some advice.

    • MRASoldier

      A) this documentary ignores that men are raped/sexually assaulted more in the military than women..heck men are raped more than women in the USA period

      B) as for sex offenders being “rendered impotent” that better apply to female rapist also and women who LIE about rape should face the same fate.

  • claudedaisy

    This documentary is very powerful. When I watched it, I felt very angry that these women, who had served this country had been abused by their comrades and then ignored by their commanders. The fact that the VA just jerks them around when they need medical and emotional help is just another form of abuse. I won’t accept the military or our elected officials doing nothing about this. We need to keep pushing this issue to our politicians, so those who have been abused, receive the justice they deserve. We should also educate young women about this side of the military, so they don’t enlist without knowledge of the prevalence of sexual abuse. It’s the 21st century and although women have many opportunities to serve in many positions in the armed forces, they are still being treated like they are in the 19th century. I applaud the people in this film who let the world see their problems, in the hopes that they might help make a change.

  • Julie Niemi

    Hi there, I’d like to use the last image of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering for NationBuilder’s new website. Who would I need to contact for image rights? Thanks!

    • underdog

      Hi Julie,
      producer Amy Ziering told us you can go ahead and use the image. Thanks for checking!
      Craig Phillips of Independent Lens

  • Christine

    Thank you very much for making this very important and powerful film. You should be honored for the care and love you showed with the survivors and their families, but more importantly their stories. It’s so important to get the word out and stop this madness. I only have one question, and I don’t ask this lightly…how in the name of all that is good did you contain yourself when you had to interview the likes of Dr. Wiltey and the rest of her ilk? I became enraged every time she opened her ridiculous mouth, and spouted the BS she did. As a country we should be ashamed, truly ashamed for what was done, and what we continue to perpetuate on these fine young people. We need to do more than just “thank” them for their years of service. They deserve justice!!! And our military needs to step our of the 19th century, and into the 21st. “Rape is an occupational hazard of serving in the military” is the most outrageous, egregious, despicable things I have ever heard of in my life. My blood has been boiling since I watched the film. I just can’t stand this, on any level. Truly truly sad.