Officials: Documentary draws connections between sexual assault in military, Iowa City


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The Bijou was silent at the end of the première of The Invisible War on Aug. 24. Around 20 people attended the 7 p.m. showing of the documentary examining the problem of sexual harassment in the military.

The film began with historical ads promoting equality for both men and women in all branches of the U.S. military. Cheerful music and smiling men and women are portrayed serving their country with duty, diligence, and pride. The remainder of the film is a stark contrast.

Statistics such as “Around 500,000 women have been assaulted in the U.S. military,” and “80 percent of assault survivors don’t ever report what happened to them,” appeared between personal interviews of veterans who were assaulted during their service.

The Invisible War received the Sundance audience award for U.S. documentary at this year’s festival.

Film producer Amy Ziering said she did not expect the film to gain any attention because of the difficult topic.

The entire process of shooting the film was unexpectedly difficult for Ziering. Ziering approached interviews with care for emotional safety. She said hearing the stories of people whose lives have been ruined by sexual assault changed the way she saw the topic.

The interviews in The Invisible War are mainly of women, but the documentary also discusses men who have been sexually assaulted.

“There is definitely more stigma [of homosexuality] attached to the male side of the issue. The male discussion of sexual assault is even more difficult to approach,” she said.

Ziering said that her hope is for policy changes that will apply to both male and female victims.

“There was a lot of debate about how much to include of male victims. It was eventually decided by [the director] Kirby  {Dick] that the audience response would be more receptive if mostly women cases were shown,” she said.

According to the documentary, the military has several programs in place for sexual assault victims, but they are less effective than they could be. Reporting such issues is difficult for victims due to the chain of command structured within the military.

The U.S. military operates under self-governance, and commanders have the ultimate say in how an assault case is handled, and they can choose to drop all allegations at their own discretion. 

The Invisible War has made headway to transfer court power to outside the military.

After Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the documentary on April 4, he called for an immediate change to take the ability to prosecute cases of sexual assault away from military commanders.

“I hope that the film is a catalyst for change — real change for the military in addition to how crime is viewed, and what help is available for survivors,” Ziering said.

The Bijou showing of the film led to a group discussion, and resources were available after the first showing. University Counseling Service as well as the Women’s Resource and Action Center had support waiting outside the theater.

Linda Stewart Kroon, the Women’s Resource and Action Center director, said the film was “very difficult to watch. The pain and suffering is considerably large and widespread.” She noted that the scale of the problem surrounding sexual harassment within the military is “shocking.”

Paula Keeton of University Counseling Services said this is an issue that is even prevalent in the Iowa City community. Keeton said that counseling service sees about 40 veterans each year, and although she cannot specify how many have been victims of sexual assault during service, about half of the veterans report stress-related trauma.

“I felt empathy, disgust, and shock. The personal stories are impactful,” Keeton said.

The Invisible War will show at the Bijou until the end of August; it costs $3 for students.

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