October 18, 2018

Amy Ziering’s visible war against military rape

On a rainy Saturday night in January, a small group of leaders from the worlds of entertainment, media and philanthropy gathered at the home of billionaire businessman Ron Burkle to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.”

For 97 minutes, the room was still. There was no coughing, no bathroom break, no popcorn. Once or twice, the unruly reflex of nervous laughter was heard, if only to relieve the tension of the movie’s subject. Mostly though, the 20 or so guests sat transfixed and uneasy as on screen U.S. military veterans — most of them women — told of their experiences of rape, sexual assault and physical abuse while serving their country. And if that was not disturbing enough, the audience learned, their woes did not end with those crimes against their bodies, but were compounded when they sought justice against the perpetrators. 

After the screening, California Sen. Barbara Boxer somberly walked to the front of the room. She wore a citrusy orange V-neck sweater and a thick strand of pearls. “Well,” she said, “you have seen a truth. It’s horrible. This is something we’d never want to know, because it’s so ugly.” Boxer, who serves as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and whose daughter Nicole is an executive producer of the film, appeared both outraged and embarrassed. The film presents a serious indictment — that rape and sexual assault are rampant in the U.S. military and, worse, that perpetrators benefit from systemic impunity while victims suffer unthinkably from institutional denial. “It’s a terrible secret the country needs to look at,” Boxer said, “and it’s as disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen.”

Since seeing the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Boxer has become one of its staunchest champions. Last November, she led the Senate to pass an amendment banning anyone convicted of a sexual assault felony from joining the armed forces. Its passage codified into law a policy initiated by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009. Boxer explained to the group that enforcement of the policy had been lax in recent years as the demands of two wars forced the military to waive some of its requirements. “They were taking in requests from people who were kidnappers, arsonists,” Boxer said. “After this film, it was a no-brainer. No one dared stand up and say, ‘I’m not supporting this [bill].’ ”

U.S. Marine Corps First Lt. Ariana Klay in dress blues in “The Invisible War.”  Photo courtesy of Cinedigm/Docurama Films


“That’s a rare thing,” she added, “for a film to have so much power.”

“The Invisible War,” conceived and created by film partners Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick has provoked a ripple effect throughout Washington. After watching the film in April 2012, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly moved to strengthen oversight regarding military policy on sexual assault. Last month, U.S. Air Force leaders were called before the House Armed Services Committee to testify on the conditions that led to widespread sexual assault of Air Force recruits by their instructors. A story in The New York Times credited the “The Invisible War” for putting this issue on the political map and reported that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III had gathered all of the Air Force’s wing commanders to watch the film in November.

Fans keep telling the filmmakers that they’ve created a tsunami. “A lot of people are upset that this film was made,” Boxer said at the screening. In the past, the issue had reared its head only when a scandal erupted, like the one at the Tailhook Association meetings in 1991 or at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, then retreated from the headlines. But now, with a highly visible Oscar nomination for best documentary, the cause of “The Invisible War” is becoming harder to ignore, and the public is demanding military and political officials be held accountable. Last week, Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel faced questions on the issue from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who both grilled him on his position during confirmation hearings. “This issue bedevils the military,” Blumenthal said before asking Hagel if he had seen “The Invisible War.” Hearing that Hagel had, Blumenthal pressed for a promise to prosecute perpetrators of sexual assault as well as provide care for victims. “Absolutely, I’ll commit to that,” Hagel responded.

For producer Ziering, this was a major victory. “Did you hear?” she exclaimed during a break from a screening of the film at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. “Oh. My. God. And then, Lawrence O’Donnell” — anchor of MSNBC’s “The Last Word” — “for the first 15 minutes of his show tonight — my phone has been exploding, went crazy. He said the only issue that Hagel should be concerned with is rape in the military. And he showed clips from our movie, and he’s tweeting now. They said he’s blowing up Twitter, like ‘Hagel, what are you going to do about rape in the military?’ ” 

For Ziering, this project is more than a movie; it is a cause that has become a kind of second skin. Her interest was sparked in 2007, when she read Helen Benedict’s article in Salon, “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” based on interviews with 20 female Iraq veterans. “[E]very one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection,” Benedict wrote. When Ziering reached out to Benedict after reading her story, Benedict said she had simply intended to write a book about women in combat, but during the course of her research, stories of sexual assault kept pouring out. (A week later, the same topic appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine.) Ziering, who had just completed the HBO documentary “Outrage,” about closeted politicians who legislate against gay causes, decided to pursue Benedict’s lead. 

She began by posting flyers at L.A. Veterans Affairs (VA) buildings seeking victims of military sexual assault. She also spoke with advocates, therapists and trolled through military chat rooms. She promised whoever came forward, that initial conversations would be kept off the record and offered options on how to share their stories — letters, e-mails, by phone or in person. Ziering also created a Facebook page providing background information about herself; partner Dick, who directed the film; and their film company. She received hundreds of responses.

The film’s director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering at the 65th annual Directors Guild of America Awards on Feb. 2. Photo by Michael Germana Star Max/Newscom


Over four months, Ziering interviewed more than 100 veterans by phone. From those, she whittled down her subjects to 21 people who fit a master criteria: the experiences had to be recent, the victims had to be geographically accessible, and they had to represent the diverse branches of the military. Perhaps most important, the stories had to be “unassailable,” Ziering said. 

“In many of these [sexual-assault] cases, a lot of the evidence has been destroyed or there are no records kept. We didn’t want any vulnerabilities or holes that could get [the film] attacked and discredited,” Ziering said. The film also couldn’t seem “anti-military.” Since a project of this scale on this topic was unprecedented, diplomacy mattered. “There’s no book on this,” Ziering said. “We are the story.”

“The Invisible War” opens with archival black-and-white footage depicting the glamour of the U.S. military and its decision to admit women into the service. In the ensuing montage, female veterans describe the reasons for their desire to serve — a passion for service, a sense of duty, family military history or a desire to see the world. “I could just always see the movies of the military, and I just knew: That was me. That’s what I wanted to do,” Kori Cioca, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, says. While serving, Cioca was raped several times by her superior. On one occasion he struck her across the face, severely damaging her jaw. The blow caused disc and nerve damage so severe that she has since been forced to eat a “soft diet.” Five years after the incident, the film relates, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny her medical coverage for jaw surgery. 

Cioca’s story serves as the central thread of the documentary, though it also includes interviews with other veterans, lawyers, therapists, experts and political officials. As the filmmakers delve into Cioca’s private life, showing her at home with her husband, Rob McDonald (also a Coast Guard veteran, who resigned after his wife’s ordeal), and their young daughter, it becomes clear that her rape trauma affects the entire family — from the pained and fraught sex life that has darkened their marriage to their young daughter’s daily exposure to her mother’s physical limitations and emotional preoccupations. At one point, McDonald tells the camera that his most ardent hope for his daughter is that she never serve in the military. In this way, the film suggests rape is not just a women’s issue, but rather a societal one, affecting families and communities across generations. 

According to Department of Defense (DOD) statistics, 3,192 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2011, but studies indicate the actual number is likely much higher — close to 19,000 per year — since 80 percent of sexual-assault cases are never reported. This means that as many as a half-million sexual assaults have occurred in the U.S. military since the early 1990s. And even when cases are reported, the film suggests, they often become tied up in bureaucratic never-land, and a pervasive culture of victim-blaming leaves many victims who come forward subject to professional retaliation. 

Ariana Klay, a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq War veteran, reported being gang raped while serving at Marine Barracks Washington, the elite Marine Corps unit that handles ceremonial duties for the president. Afterward, she claims, she was told that she had invited the harassment by wearing the regulation-length skirt that serves as her uniform. She was also accused of misconduct. “The thing that makes me the most angry is not the rape itself,” she tells the camera, “but the complicity in covering it up.”

The trauma of military sexual assault, according to experts in the film, is unusually damaging because of the armed forces’ familial culture, which makes the betrayal harder to bear. One therapist interviewed equates it with incest. 

“What is boot camp?” Ziering asked. “It’s all about stripping you down psychologically, making you believe that these are your brothers, and then suddenly someone’s assaulting you? And they say ‘suck it up’ or ‘it’s your fault’ or ‘it didn’t happen.’ It’s just completely profoundly damaging in a way you and I can’t comprehend. 

“Most of the women in our film were discharged for personality disorders,” she added. “There’s nothing wrong with them! And then their perpetrator gets accolades and honors and has a healthy career? I mean, what do you do with that?”

When I met Ziering a few weeks ago at a Brentwood cafe near her home, she was seated in a courtyard with her laptop, negotiating a potential CNN buyout of “The Invisible War” from PBS (the latter was an early contributor to the film’s $850,000 budget, which came with broadcast rights; the CNN deal subsequently collapsed). Ziering looked relaxed, casually dressed in khakis and a cotton tee with a cashmere sweater tied around her neck, her chestnut hair blown perfectly straight. Her soft, almost delicate appearance is a fitting counterpoint to her feistiness, and though she possesses the air of elegance that comes with having had a posh upbringing, it’s a topic she’d rather avoid. 

“I can’t talk about our family,” she said bluntly. “Whatever you want to say about us is fine. I feel stupid … I mean, just Google my mom.”

Ziering was raised in Beverly Hills, the daughter of philanthropists Marilyn and Sigi Ziering, major supporters of American Jewish University, Temple Beth Am, American Friends of the Israeli Philharmonic and LA Opera. Sigi, now deceased, was a Holocaust survivor who went on to found a multinational medical diagnostic corporation. But it was his Holocaust legacy that steered her course. “I was incredibly interested in trauma, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and it’s actually sort of an unconscious thread in most of my films. There’s always a psychological dimension that deals with the nature of trauma.” 

Working in the entertainment industry was never her goal. She said she had “zero interest in films. Never watched them. I walked out of ‘Star Wars’ when I was 12.” She fell into documentary filmmaking as a graduate student at Yale when she decided to make a film about her professor, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. A rabid student of philosophy — she studied “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Foucault” — a film on Derrida offered an opportunity to get close to the living legend. “It was really raising the bar in a bizarre way, like, how could I get even more crazy access and push myself?” she said. “And of course he said no, and of course I pursued him for like two years.” 

Ziering is marked by a spellbinding duality, a combination of deep sensitivity and outrageous chutzpah that she happily exploits to her advantage. During production of “The Invisible War,” she was compassionate and tender enough to elicit personal and painful stories from strangers; but outside that context, she displays an almost ruthless drive to get what she wants. Dick, with whom she collaborated on “Derrida,” “Outrage” and “The Invisible War,” described her this way: “When Amy decides that she wants to go after something, she will not take no for an answer. … And she has this skill at asking in a way that she expects the person to say yes.” 

Dick credits Ziering’s protective, maternal nature for her skill in conducting the interviews for “The Invisible War.” “They are really the soul of the film,” he said. Which is a tad ironic, since Ziering described her own mothering style as a little detached. Though her family life is full — she is married to filmmaker Gil Kofman, with whom she has three daughters, ages 14, 15 and 20, and described the family as “totally close” — she admitted that her kids don’t always come first. “I ignore them,” she said, only half-joking. “It’s amazing how resourceful [children] become when you pay no attention to them. My daughter’s soccer coach asked if she had parents, because I’ve never been to a game. I’m not gonna kid: something gives.” 

Ziering finds justification for her compromise in the idea that her work is altruistic in purpose. “I don’t care about myself,” she said. “I’m not much of a glamour-seeking or publicity-seeking person. I’m a workaholic; that’s all that interests me.” 

Ziering has applied her merciless resolve to getting “The Invisible War” seen in Washington. “We not only wanted to make a very powerful film for film audiences, we wanted to make a film that several hundred of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C., would see and hopefully be compelled to do something,” Dick said. “That’s when Amy undertook this very skillful, brilliantly strategized and calculated campaign to get this film in front of influencers and policy makers.” 

She started with Wikipedia, looking up the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leaders of all five branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — and then sent an e-mail to her girlfriends asking if they knew “any of these guys’ wives, daughters, sisters.” “And if so, I need to talk to them,” she recalled writing. Within a week, one friend wrote that she was having lunch with the wife of a top general and would mention the film. A few weeks later, Ziering flew to D.C. to hold a private screening for the general and his wife (Ziering wouldn’t give their names). Afterward, the couple offered their help. “I need you to call Martin Dempsey” —  the decorated general and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ziering told them. “I need him to watch this film.”

“The Invisible War” had just enjoyed a splashy premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and won the U.S. documentary audience award. (At Sundance, New York Jewish philanthropists Barbara and Eric Dobkin were so moved by the film they offered to pay for Kori Cioca’s jaw surgery.) Eager to capitalize on the press that followed, Ziering organized a screening on Capitol Hill that was attended by 16 senators and eight representatives.

“I did my homework,” Ziering told me. “Everybody said, you can grass-roots this thing till the cows come home, but the military is a top-down organization — the Joint Chiefs of our military need to see this; Obama needs to see it; Leon Panetta needs to see it — and until that happens, nothing is going to change.”

Several months later, Ziering got a text message from Jennifer Siebel Newsom, one of the film’s executive producers and the wife of Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who is now California’s lieutenant governor. Newsom had been in Washington attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Congratulations Amy,” Newsom wrote. “You got it to Panetta.” 

Ziering’s endgame is and always has been policy change. After Panetta watched “The Invisible War,” he amended military protocol for reporting sexual assault by taking authority out of the hands of unit commanders — who, Defense Department statistics show, deter reporting because of their proximity to perpetrators or because they happen to be the perpetrator — and placed discretion instead in the hands of colonels or Navy captains. It was a promising start, but hardly a panacea: “Our ask is to take adjudication of these crimes outside the chain of command,” Ziering said, adding that Great Britain, Australia and Canada all have independent bodies to investigate and prosecute military sexual assault. When I requested an interview with the Department of Defense, the response was a statement from Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which did not address policy but called the film “gut-wrenching” and stated his commitment to “eliminating” sexual assault from the U.S. military. 

“There has to be a system of checks and balances. Absolute authority corrupts,” Ziering said.

After becoming close with the subjects in her film, Ziering said she felt compelled to try to help them obtain treatment. Years after the assaults, Ziering said, almost every single person she interviewed still suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “Survivors would describe the day the trauma happened as the day their life stopped. And from my knowledge of survivors of the Holocaust, not all, but a lot of them were able to compartmentalize and lead healthy productive lives. I didn’t see one person I talked to who had at all recovered in a way where they were high functioning or happy. It was this radical transformation that seemed irrecuperable.”

Another of the film’s producers, public relations executive Regina Kulik Scully, stepped forward with a half-million dollars (in addition to her contribution to the production) to pilot The Artemis Rising Invisible War Recovery Program, a two-week residential treatment program at The Bridge to Recovery in Santa Barbara. The pilot program began Feb. 3 with five of the women from the film. In addition to offering intensive individual and group therapy along with equine therapy, yoga and dance, a researcher from Stanford has attended the retreat to gather data for a scientific study, hoping to quantify the program’s results. If effective, Ziering and Scully suggest it could become a prototype for the VA, a model for future treatment. “Right now, the one-stop shop is pharmaceuticals,” Ziering said.

Despite this cause’s harsh realities and the uphill battle that remains, Ziering said she finds the work rewarding. “My dad, obviously, was first degree on profound despair, but he turned that pain into this incredible optimism and passion for helping others — and the older I get, the more I marvel at that,” she said, as tears welled in her eyes. “That, that was his takeaway.” 

Ziering regained her characteristic toughness when talk turned to the Oscars. After all, “The Invisible War,” is competing at the Oscars against two Israeli films — “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.” So, she allowed herself to call in a favor from her well-connected mother. “I did finally say to my mom, ‘You’ve been supporting Israel all your life. You’re not. That’s over.’ ”

Eager to oblige, Marilyn Ziering called a few of her rabbi pals, as well as leaders from other Jewish organizations to spread the good word about her daughter’s film. 

“The fact that ‘The Invisible War’ has the misfortune of being up against two Israeli movies is just something we have to get over,” a very resolute Marilyn Ziering told me by phone. For her daughter, winning an Oscar is a means to a much bigger end, although its prestige could help her get there. In a flash of sarcasm, Amy Ziering described her mother’s task as “Operation Annihilate Shin Bet” — a joking reference to Israel’s internal security agency, the subject of “The Gatekeepers” — but she then quickly recanted for fear of Academy reprisal. Ziering said she felt bad about dissing the competition. But not too bad.

“I have a bigger mission, so screw it,” she said, throwing her head back in laughter. “I’m not much of a rules girl.” 

“The Invisible War” will have a brief theatrical re-release this weekend in select cities — it will screen in Los Angeles Thurs. Feb. 7 at 7pm at the Museum of Tolerance — and will premier on PBS on Memorial Day, May 27. The film is currently available on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon. 

“The Invisible War” can be seen  Feb. 8-13 at the ArcLight Hollywood and ArcLight Pacific