'The Invisible War' Documentary Exposes Military Sexual Assault

Emmy-nominated producer Amy Ziering admitted she was looking at her phone during the announcement of the Audience Award for U.S. documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. She was thinking, "No one is going to vote for the rape film. They'll go for a happy movie."

Some five years before, Academy- and Emmy-nominated documentary maker Kirby Dick -- the son of a World War II veteran -- came across an article on military sexual assault. After his initial shock, the "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" director began on the journey that would become "The Invisible War" -- a documentary probing at the depths of trauma caused by sexual assaults in the U.S. armed forces, dredging up the military's failings in addressing the issue and bringing survivors' stories to light.

Shortly after viewing the film, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced what advocates call some of the most far-reaching reforms to the military's sexual assault prevention and response policy to date.

And to Ziering's surprise, "The Invisible War," which she produced and Dick wrote and directed, won the Audience Award at Sundance.

The Huffington Post spoke with Ziering and Dick Monday, before the movie's nationwide release June 22, to learn how they, too, were impacted by the making of the documentary.

What led you personally to this story, and what about the documentary medium did you feel could uniquely capture it?

Dick: Well, I think we were astounded by the numbers and the extent of the cover-up. And when we would talk to civilians, so few people had even heard of this.

A documentary is able to combine the sort of the facts side and the emotional side of the story, in a very powerful way ... the audience walks out with sort of a complete overview, statistical, historical, and also that they understand it from an emotional point of view, how they're women who really believe in the military, even after they've been assaulted.

Ziering: It does present a juggling act -- it's a very complex, complicated situation, to present all the analysis and factual parts correctly and still have it be a very moving experience.

How do you tell these women's stories without subjecting them to the kind of re-traumatization that many suffered after their assaults -- how did you navigate this very difficult emotional territory?

Ziering: I always told them that their mental health came first. Anything we were doing, really, I wanted them always to feel comfortable. I told them to just tell me if they didn't want to answer a question, or we would stop and start. And really meant it, sincerely.

Dick: She has three daughters, I think that really helped [her] relate. She always set it up as a very safe space from the beginning.

There was the moment when Kori Cioca [the central woman featured in the film] broke down, and [Ziering] just sort of left her seat and hugged her, saying, "You're safe, no one's gonna get you."

Ziering: I had forgotten about that, and then at Sundance someone asked [Cioca] about the interview process and she mentioned that story and said, 'You know, thank God for Ms. Amy ... In all my years, going to therapists, going to the VA, trying to get help, no one had articulated that. Held me, grounded me, and said, 'This is the past, it doesn't have to define me right now.'"

I didn't realize how hard -- I had never done this before and I didn't know about what it's like to hear trauma stories over and over again, and that was a very unique personal experience for me.

Dick: For them, it was kind of transformative. They were taking this trauma that had really devastated their lives and putting it to some positive use. Because every one of them said they decided to be in the film so it doesn't happen to other men and women who are serving now.

The military has for years pledged to eradicate sexual assault in the ranks, citing a policy of "zero tolerance" --after the making of this film, what do you feel are the chances of action being taken to make this a reality?

Ziering: What we hope is that the film's a game-changer in putting this on the public consciousness in a way that it's never been before. There's really been no pressure on the military.

The other reason we're hopeful is they've done a lot in response to the film, and not in a defensive way. ... That's pretty amazing.

Obviously we all should be cautious but ... we're worried, but we're positive at the same time.

Dick: The one thing they haven't done is they haven't stepped up and said, 'We have a huge problem here and we're gonna take care of it.' ... They really have a long way to go. When you have 19,000 a year being assaulted --

Ziering: And it's not just the assaults -- they're being discharged with personality disorders, there's retaliation on the survivor's themselves. That has to be immediately addressed and shut down.

Dick: Every citizen, every member of the military, every member of Congress, needs to continue putting pressure on them to do this.

Are there any plans for the film to be used as part of the military's training on sexual assault? Would you be open to that?

Dick: We would welcome that, and we're in discussions on that. We're absolutely open to that.

Ziering: Right after Sundance were were getting six to 10 weekly requests from bases saying, 'Can you send me the trailer? My internet is blocked, so I can't show it, so I just saw it in the coffee shop. This will help me with my training, I can use it.' They're on bases in Japan, Hawaii --

Dick: Afghanistan --

Ziering: They're saying, 'I'm sitting here working in the trenches on this issue.'

What was the most powerful moment during the making of the film?

Ziering: We just finished two days before [Sundance] for a lot of long and interesting reasons ... We hadn't really had a chance even to watch it. ... And after that very first screening, someone came up to me and said, 'I'm gonna take care of Kori. I'll pay for the surgery.' And another couple heard them and said, 'We're in, too.' We never could have imagined or dreamed or thought, that it would generate that kind of response and outpouring ... so that was one of the very -- it was full of powerful moments, but that was really the one.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"The Invisible War" will open Friday June 22 in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

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