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Picture Perfect

Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering tell unconventional stories, about gays in Congress, rape in the military and French deconstructionist philosophers.

How unconventional?

Well, for one, they have nice things to say about Congress, a sentiment definitely against the grain at a time when the legislative branch has approval ratings hovering in the teens.

“There’s a lot of people trying to do the right thing in Congress, and certainly some of the people in our film are some of those people,” said Dick, the writer and director of “The Invisible War,” a documentary that examines sexual assault in the military and efforts to address it by Congress, the Pentagon and the survivors.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is the third collaboration between Dick (no relation to the author of this piece) and Ziering, the film’s producer. It opens in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

The movie reports in vivid detail the eye-popping statistics about rape in the military but never loses track of the human element, the survivors, and how they cope with physical and psychological injuries, the military justice system and a seemingly indifferent Veterans Administration.

The film cites Defense Department statistics that there were 3,158 cases of sexual assault in the armed forces in 2010. And by the Pentagon’s own estimates, more than 80 percent of sexual assaults in the military are not reported. 

The filmmakers also track survivors who, unable to make headway in the military’s justice system, go to civilian court to seek relief for their injuries and in many cases retaliation. One such case stems from sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill, one of the Marine Corps’ most prestigious postings.

“We thought the statistics had to be wrong,” Ziering told a screening audience recently in Washington. 

“What’s really shocking to us is how long this has been going on,” Dick added. 

 Breaking Through

Documentaries on any topic have a difficult time catching on with audiences. Washington, a natural beacon for such films, sees its share. This is, after all, the home of the Silverdocs documentary film festival, which features dozens of films ranging from politics to food policy to punk rock.

It is also fair to say that media-saturated audiences here can be difficult to impress. 

But in an interview with Roll Call, Dick and Ziering said the response to their film has been overwhelmingly positive, with people in and out of the military expressing shock and a desire to help.

“One of the things that just struck us about this was the lack of awareness about this issue. … Most of the time when we would speak to people and tell them we were making a film about this, people were just astonished that it was even an issue at all and that they hadn’t heard of it,” Dick said.

Bipartisan Outrage

At a June 4 screening, gasps from the audience were audible throughout the movie, matching Dick’s assertion that his discovery of the statistics and stories surrounding military sexual trauma were almost unbelievable.

Lawmakers have taken notice, too, and support for addressing the issue cuts across the political spectrum. Conservative Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and liberal Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) are shown in the film giving impassioned floor speeches supporting the sexual assault victims featured in the film who filed a class action lawsuit.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), also featured in the film, has introduced legislation, the Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance Act, with 39 bipartisan co-sponsors. The bill would shore up the rights of military sexual assault victims and establish a better tracking system for the problem.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched the film April 14 and shortly thereafter changed the protocol for initiating an investigation into sexual assault.

Ziering said the issue is one of national security. 

“It’s not only morally wrong, but you’re actually damaging the military’s strength. … The military is smart and it really doesn’t want that to happen,” she said, expressing optimism that now that the issue is out in the open, solutions will be easier to come by. “I think the
pressure will be twofold. I think it will come from within the military and without, if we get it seen by enough right people in the right places, which is happening,” she said.

“I think there are a lot of people in Congress, just like in society, who weren’t aware of the nature of the problem, the extent of the problem and what … the military was losing in not addressing it,” Dick said. 

‘Out’ in the Open

While Dick’s career as a filmmaker stretches back to the 1980s, he came on Washington’s radar with his 2006 picture, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” 

The film, a witty and dogged examination of the powerful Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board and a critique of its transparency and standards, was followed by changes in how the ratings board operates. 

He followed that with 2009’s “Outrage,” teaming up with Ziering, who produced. The film examines lawmakers and other public figures who have engaged in homosexual behavior who have voted consistently against gay causes.

Dick sees a connection to how the public and the media approached the subject matter of “outrage” and his latest film.

“The media wasn’t covering it or it just wasn’t getting written about. So I think that’s similar to ‘The Invisible War.’ I think ‘The Invisible War,’ it lays out the issues. It’s a very strong, and I think in many ways, unimpeachable argument,” he said. 

He added that he sees the issue of military sexual assault as a much more damaging phenomenon than the political hypocrisy outlined in “Outrage.”

“We’re hoping it will have a much bigger impact,” he said of the new film.

And then there’s that film on French deconstructionism, “Derrida.” 

It was the first collaboration for Dick and Ziering, who co-directed. The picture profiled the late philosopher Jacques Derrida.

His decades-long career was characterized by a questioning of traditional authority figures and conventional wisdom. He was also politically active, criticizing the apartheid regime in South Africa and supporting Eastern European dissidents against communist rule.

Ziering said she was interested in Derrida because of his “serious political implications,” adding that his writings and actions helped give her “the imperative to act and sort of a different understanding of responsibility.”

Dick’s take was similar. 

“I was interested in Derrida because he was critiquing a mainstream perspective in philosophy, and the parallel here, and in many of my other films, … [is] the subjects in our film are saying something that wasn’t said, that was really covered up in a way.”

That “imperative to act” as Ziering put it, frames their work.

“We’re glad — we’re very glad — that the film is, these films are having an impact. That’s why we make them,” Dick said.

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