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Co-directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, The Invisible War addresses the issue of rape in the military. Dick’s previous films include Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (97), Derrida (02), Twist of Faith (04), This Film Is Not Yet Rated (06), and Outrage (09), working with Ziering on the last three titles). FILM COMMENT spoke to Dick and Ziering about putting the film together, interviewing subjects, and the roles of activism, funding, and social media in making and releasing a documentary.

Your films often deal with cultures of silence, where one side is completely devoted to maintaining secrecy—the MPAA, closeted senators, the military—and another wants to tear it down. What draws you to that theme?

Kirby Dick: We have an opportunity, as documentary filmmakers, to speak to issues around social justice, particularly when information about injustice is covered up and allows the injustice to continue. From a cinematic point of view, it's also very dramatic to have a film actively uncovering and investigating this cover-up.

Did you go through any kind of special training to interview the victims in the film?

Amy Ziering: I did a few interviews with therapists who specialize in sexual assault to find out not so much about how to interview people but just about what kinds of issues these women in particular experience. I also spoke with a lot of the women before we recorded the interviews.

KD: We did a great deal of research, and I think Amy has a very natural interview style. She was able to set up a situation for these survivors that made them feel safe, but at the same time she was able to have them walk through the details of their assault and reprisals, which we really needed to be able to show the extent of the problem.

How did you go about choosing which victims to profile? There are four people who are profiled in traditional documentary fashion, but there's one very simple but gutting sequence where 12 women go through and share their experience in rapid succession.

KD: We needed people who could both convey the emotional devastation they felt but were also very articulate about the issues they encountered and about their observations as to what should and could be changed in the military. Another factor was time. We tried to choose subjects who had recent assaults because we didn’t want the military to say “This is a problem that’s been solved” or “These things happened in the past.” We were also looking for people who were strong enough to tell their story and to be in a documentary with all the publicity that followed.

Because the military is overwhelmingly male, there's a much higher rate of male sexual assault victims. Was the weighting toward female victims intentional, or was that just how it happened?

KD: No, actually. There were two reasons. Firstly, it was much more difficult to find male survivors.

AZ: There’s so much more societal stigma about homosexual sex, we found that it impeded many men from ever wanting to report. And those who do report face a lot more hostility and aggression than women.

KD: The other reason is that we felt audiences would be—it's odd and it's unfortunate—more receptive to a film that dealt with female sexual assault. Even though it happens to as many men as women, we thought that this film would be seen by a wider audience. Obviously, the more people that are aware of this, the more pressure will be put on the military. And once the military initiates the policy changes, these policy changes will impact women and men equally. That is the way the military does things. So we saw the women’s stories as kind of a foot in the door here.

The film says a lot about the very frustrating process of dealing with bureaucracy, not just the military and its system of dealing with the assaults, but the VA. In particular, there's a sequence where Kori, who has a bad jaw injury, just keeps calling and calling the VA.

KD: We heard from almost all our survivors how difficult it was to deal with the VA, particularly on the phone. In a way the sequence you mentioned best conveys the frustrations that we’ve all heard over and over throughout the decades. It's all condensed to this one- or two-minute montage.

AZ: We gave Kori and her husband Rob a camera to do a sort of diary, and we said to be sure to film all those calls that you’ve been making.

Did you also use that same diary approach with other survivors?

KD: For a short period of time we gave a camera to Treena and Amy. It's interesting. We’ve done this before in numerous other films, and I find that about one in three people really take to it, and are actually very good cinematographers, just naturally. Even if they may not be recording that much, or even done much photography previously.

What else did Kori shoot? There’s that one sequence where she wakes up screaming.

AZ: Her husband Rob shot that—that was all his footage. They had described to us that she has night terrors, and we asked if they could film a few of those, because people don’t really comprehend what’s it's like for them day to day.

KD: And this was true not only for her. All of these survivors are experiencing this.

AZ: In fact, her mother-in-law saw the film at the Cleveland Film Festival for the first time, and stood up afterwards and said: “I’m her mother-in-law and I have to apologize to Kori. I had no idea this is what you guys were struggling with.”

KD: And what Amy says here is really interesting, because historically when they’ve spoken about this they’ve experienced these reprisals, they’ve tended to keep these stories very private, sometimes even, as she said, not speaking to their families about it. So no one really understands it. We've had two spouses come up to us after a screening and said that it saved their marriage. One of the spouses said, Even though we’re close, and we talk about this, I never understood the trauma my wife is going through until I saw these other survivors’ experiences, then I understood that it was not just that she was anomalous or crazy, but that this is a syndrome, it's an experience.

Near the end of the film, it's incredibly devastating to hear the results of the class action suit about the military’s policies. But then it's revealed that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film, and shifted prosecuting powers in these cases away from unit commanders. How did you get Secretary Panetta to see it?

AZ: As a documentarian, what you always dream of is real political impact. After winning the audience award at Sundance, we started having these very small screenings—we called them “grass-tops”—for leadership-level personnel in the military and in the administration, law makers, media-influencers. We also had a Hill screening that was standing-room only, with an unprecedented 16 senators and eight Congressional representatives in attendance. Senator Boxer gave the introduction, and that was pretty incredible. So with this confluence of all these events happening and people hearing about it from different places, you had this pressure building, and eventually Panetta saw it. And two days later he held a press conference instituting some of the changes our film actually pointed to. He subsequently ran into one of our producers at the White House correspondents' dinner and said thank you, the film was incredibly moving, and one of the reasons why I instituted changes.

So we’re quietly optimistic. It's not over, and the military really needs to step up and own this but so far they haven’t been defensive, and we’re appreciative of the measures they are starting to take. It's been healing for a lot of the survivors to feel that they’ve been heard and to know that Secretary Panetta actually saw this film and they’ve been given some credibility. That’s been really great.

How do you go about incorporating advocacy into the film, both during pre- and post-production?

KD: We were very careful not to make this a broadside on the military so that they could hear that. Most of the subjects said they wouldn’t be involved with the film if it was anti-military. But we structured it in such a way that we wanted to be very specific about the changes that need to be made. We wanted to make the film very powerful so that they understood the impact today that sexual assault and the reprisals have on the force. But do it in such a way that they could hear it and it would motivate them to start making policy changes.

When you’re making a film like this, advocacy is not a limiting element—it's actually an additional element. We don’t stop trying to make a film that’s very powerful on an emotional level with a strong arm, but it almost like keeping another ball in the air, in a way.

AZ: I feel like there’s a little prejudice towards a film that feels like it has an argument. It's not easy to make a strong argument that’s also a powerful cinematic experience. I mean, people leave the theater and they don’t say, “Oh, what a great argument.” They say “I’m so shaken and moved by this film, it so affected me.” That I think was something we were hoping to achieve.

How did funding work for this? It’s a very big topic, but it’s a very heavy topic.

KD: It was a challenge at first. We received some small grants and we sold some broadcast rights, and ITVS came in with some development money. But there was a time when we didn’t have a lot of money, and Amy and I just resolved that we were going to make this film no matter what. Then we had very good luck at Good Pitch in San Francisco, where I think we made a strong presentation, but also there were a couple of survivors in the audience that stood up and told their stories. That was the first time an audience as a whole saw what this film could be and saw the power of this film, and as a result, Regina Scully and Jennifer Siebel Newsom came in with their company, and then there were additional funders that came in. So that was the watershed moment in terms of funding.

The film used social media as part of its research in finding subjects, and with the release, there’s also been an extensive social media campaign. Who’s overseeing that, and to what degree are you involved?

AZ: Someone who had seen a rough cut met with me right before Sundance, and said, I work for the Fledgling Fund, a nonprofit that helps films that are potentially powerful advocacy tools to access and harness social media. They gave us a grant to go to Sundance with an outreach director who came up with our dogtag campaign and also started tweeting and bringing in bloggers to write about issues surrounding the film. And then post-Sundance we realized we have this real opportunity: not only are audiences responding to the film, but they’re asking what they can do to act. So we brought on another larger and even more experienced social media outreach director. They've been coordinating each month how to keep the message going and get the film to have the maximum impact it could have.