With the recent Katy Perry propaganda video “Part of Me” and the heavy backlash (headed by The Guardian‘s Naomi Wolf) that followed, there may have been no better timing for Kirby Dick‘s The Invisible War, a documentary playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Human Rights Watch Festival this week, about the often unreported and completely unpunished sexual abuse of women in the military. The film outlines the military as an insular, almost independent branch of society within the rest of American society, with its own justice system, its own police force, and a tight frame of internal politics that allows outside influences to be written off as third party interference. It’s a small, Lord of the Flies-like commune which plays by its own rules—the rules of brute strength, camaraderie, and an intensely male-apologist conviction that, when it comes to unwanted sexual activity, it’s always a woman’s fault.
The film follows, in a subtle, Band of Brothers-style mimicry of military propoganda films and Hollywood portrayals, a large and diverse cast of women (and one man), each of whose story follows the same, depressingly familiar pattern of force coupled with alcohol, resulting in violence a followed by clear sweep under the carpet. Amidst these testimonials, we’re barraged with statistics about unreported or undealt-with sexual assault in the military (80% of cases in a year go unreported, 15% of incoming recruits have a history of rape or attempted rape before entering the military), each piece of information more harrowing than the next.
The emphasis within the testimonials is on the physical injury that accompanies the rape, as well as its amplifying effect on preexisting PTSD that so many soldiers suffer from. One woman’s assault resulted in a dislocated jaw, while another’s spine was injured. On top of it all, we get a glimpse into outraged congresspeople chastising military officials, extracting promises that ‘more action will be taken,’ only to be faced, year after year, with persistent evidence to the contrary.
The film proposes a solution of sorts in civilian advocacy. In order to break down the wall of silence that surrounds the military, keeping intact the myths that lead more and more female recruits to join unaware of their increased risk, the film advocates for more testimonials, a wider distribution of information, and most of all a public, widespread activism that everyone should feel responsible for participating in. This civilian call to arms is great and imposing but necessary, and the conversation it will doubtless spark may be The Invisible War‘s greatest triumph of all.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Human Rights Watch Festival will run at the Walter Reade theater until Friday, June 22nd.