Friday, August 24, 2012

Documentary film exposes horrors of military rape

This film review was published in the print and online versions of today's Austin American-Statesman.  The documentary is showing at the Alamo South on South Lamar in Austin.  And, as demonstrated by the recent cases of military sexual assault by Air Force instructors in San Antonio against young recruits during basic training, this problem is common to all branches of the military. 

'Invisible War' tracks horrors of military rape

by Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 95 min
MPAA rating: Unrated
Austin American-Statesman

The statistics brandished by the documentary "The Invisible War" are scandalous, but what makes this savage indictment of the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military so unforgettable are not numbers but the devastating personal stories of the victims of brutal sexual assault.

It's not that those numbers, all courtesy of U.S. government studies, don't have their power: 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011; 30 percent of servicewomen sexually assaulted during their enlistment; women in combat zones more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. But the agony of those who live with the nightmare trumps even these.

People like the Navy's Trina McDonald, drugged and raped repeatedly by the military police in Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands. Or the Coast Guard's Kori Cioca, whose jaw was pulverized in an attack that is still so painful and traumatizing she does not leave the house without a crucifix and a fierce-looking knife. "You always have protection with Jesus," she explains. "But sometimes you need a little bit more."

As directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, who did those powerful subject interviews, "The Invisible War" goes through all of this and more in classic muckraking fashion.

Veteran filmmaker Dick, whose previous work includes the Emmy-nominated "Outrage" and the Oscar-nominated "Twist of Faith," said before Sundance (where "Invisible War" won the audience award) that the stories he heard were "the most intense series of interviews I have ever been involved with." With the subjects as well as the men in their lives often in tears, he adds, "both Amy and I cried at just about every interview."

It is not just the detailing of the horrors of assault that makes "The Invisible War" so upsetting, it is its exploration of the before and after — an examination of what led these people to the military in the first place and what happened to them once they filed rape charges — that gives the film much of its power.

The story starts, fittingly enough, with clips from the Army-created 1950s TV documentary series "The Big Picture," showing the pride of the women who served back in the day.

It turns out that intense satisfaction in having served their country is what unites the people in "The Invisible War." They are all idealistic true believers who loved what they did. And, says filmmaker Dick, to a person they refused to be involved in this film if it was going to be anti-military.

In fact, many of the women had military fathers and thought that they were entering one big family that would always look out for them. This made the rapes that occurred feel like incest. What happened to these women after the rape often shocks and disturbs them as much as the physical act itself. More often than not, the charges are not taken seriously as a victim-punishing system treats them like criminals, not injured parties. At times even formally charged with adultery, these women are invariably forced out of the service.

The heart of the problem is that U.S. military justice mandates that charges like this are heard not by an independent judiciary but by one's immediate commanding officer. In many cases that is either the assaulter himself or a close friend, which is one reason the military itself estimates that 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.

The combination of these factors is why the women interviewed here are depressed, skittish, often fearful of going outside. The military reports that 40 percent of female homeless vets have been raped, and women who have been raped have a higher PTSD rate than men in combat.

It's especially heartening that shortly after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw "The Invisible War" at a special post-Sundance screening, he changed some of the systems that have made life hell for rape victims. It won't solve the problem, but perhaps some of this story's worst excesses can be considered things of the past. We can always hope.