No one airs America’s dirty laundry on the big screen like director Kirby Dick. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, he revealed the Motion Picture Association of America’s shady rating system; Twist of Faith uncovered systemic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. His latest documentary, The Invisible War, took home the esteemed Audience Award at Sundance this year for its startling investigation into the epidemic of rape in the U.S military. Dick recently spoke with Vulture about exposing sexual assault in the armed forces, his obsession with outsiders, and how YouTube stole his signature style.
In The Invisible War, you were able to draw out very raw testimonies from survivors of military sexual assault. Some were pretty hard to watch. How were you able to get your subjects to open up about such a difficult topic on-camera, especially when many of them were shamed into silence while they were serving?
When Amy [Ziering, producer] and I did this cross-country road trip from New York to Los Angeles over a ten-day period, we saw two to three people a day. I’d shoot and Amy would do the interview. It was a profound experience each time, because these are people that the Amy had spoken to perhaps for an hour on the phone, and we’re walking into their home and they’re telling us about the most traumatic experience of their lives, something that had really destroyed their lives to such an extent that they’re on numerous medications, they can’t work, they have no career, they really have no life. They carry guns wherever they go. And they would tell us these stories that, oftentimes, they hadn’t told the people who were the closest to them. For so long they’d been disbelieved or no one had understood what they’d gone through. For us to come in, authority figures, and say, “We want to tell your story to the world,” it meant a great deal for them.
It was clear that many of these women joined the military because they really wanted to make a difference, and they believed in this idea of “Be all that you can be.” It made sense that you opened the film with that montage of ads about women in the military.
The women talked about how those ads were one of the reasons they actually came into the military. Almost all these women had very excellent experiences in boot camp. It was very egalitarian, and it was really kind of a merit-based system, and they were looking forward to spending a career in that environment, which was much less misogynistic than society at large. Then to be disappointed — not only to be assaulted, but to have this whole system that they believe in betray them, was shattering.
What was it like to film at the Pentagon? How did you approach those interviews when some of the people you spoke with had everything to lose by being candid?
We came in very, very well prepared. In many ways, we knew our subject matter better than they did. We certainly had spoken with many, many more survivors than they had. In fact, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, the director of SAPRO [the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office], although she’d only been in the position a couple of months, we were still astounded when we asked her on-camera, “Have you ever spoken to one of these survivors?” and she said, “No.”
Yeah, exactly. That’s transformative. You really only understand the situation by talking to these women and men, and I think that is the reason that the film has made such an impact in Washington, and particularly within the Department of Defense and within the military. So many of these higher-ranking officers were aware of this as an issue, but they weren’t aware of the nature of the experience of their soldiers.
Some of the most intense scenes were the ones in which your subjects filmed themselves. What’s the most shocking or surprising footage you’ve gotten when subjects control the camera?
It’s not so much shocking or surprising. I think it’s the level of intimacy that you can’t even get in the most insightful and intimate interview. There’s this quality of someone talking to everyone and no one. I had one subject in one film that I made — she was dying and talking about her experience of dying — and was sort of thanking this imaginary audience for listening, and at the same time saying she felt as she was talking to God in a way. It was called The End. We gave cameras to people who were dying in a hospice program, where people were dying in their homes, and then when they were too ill they passed the camera to their family members to continue the filming. It was extremely intense.
We’re seeing that sort of “everyone and no one” address a lot with YouTube now.
Yes! I’d used it in a film called Chain Camera, which I shot in 1999 and it came out in 2001 at Sundance. This was before YouTube. I always thought this is kind of one of my signature styles, right? I just remember sort of looking at YouTube for the first time and thinking, Well, now everyone is using it.
Like Twist of Faith and This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War deals with shame, secrecy, and sexuality. Why do you think you’re drawn to these heavy themes again and again?
I look for stories that have a personal complexity to them as well as a social and political complexity. I find myself in pretty much all my work focusing on people whose experiences are as outsiders, and by focusing on that and their experience, it becomes a critique of some aspect of the mainstream. Even in Chain Camera, you’re dealing with these urban high school students, which I always thought is sort of in opposition to the typical American image of the high school experience, which is the suburban white experience. In Twist of Faith, you’re focusing on men who’ve been abused by priests, and they’re still Catholic, but it’s obviously a very strong critique of the Catholic response to this.
Because your films do give such strong social critiques, do you ever find yourself going from being a filmmaker to being an advocate?
I think of myself as both. Within a few months, Invisible War was seen by the very highest levels of the military — certainly Secretary Panetta, and many other people in the administration and in Congress — and it’s made a very significant impact.
So what sort of response have you received from Congress and the Department of Defense?
The Army has been very receptive of the film. We’ve been contacted by people who want to use it in training with hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Did you ever imagine that it would receive this kind of response?
Sort of in our dreams, yeah. But we never imagined that it would be this quick, or this strong. I mean, there’s still a long way for the military to go. Our film argues very strongly that most of the officers in the military are horrified by this, and this is being caused by a small percentage of perpetrators that have been allowed to operate without impunity over and over again. One of the things the military has to do is go after this with the same seriousness and the same will that they fight a war.