Marine Ariana Klay, who brought a lawsuit against the US Military after she was raped. (The Invisible War). 

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced he would ask Congress to amend Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives commanding officers the authority to overturn court martial convictions and sentences. His announcement comes in response to an investigation the Department of Defense conducted in the wake of Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin's controversial decision to reverse a verdict that had found a fighter pilot guilty of rape. Franklin’s decision overturned the pilot’s one-year prison sentence, reinstated him in the Air Force, and placed him on a list for promotion. If Congress follows Hagel’s suggestion and passes legislation to remove this authority from commanders, it will be a notable first step in addressing the institutional factors that contribute to an estimated 19,000 service men and women being sexually assaulted each year.

Commanders, however, would still be in charge of reviewing reports of sexual assault and deciding whether to investigate or dismiss them—a problematic authority addressed in the 2012 documentary The Invisible War. The Oscar-nominated film gives voice to survivors of military sexual assault, whose stories paint a grim picture of a military culture in which misogyny and sexual harassment are pervasive, rape quietly ubiquitous and reporting these crimes means traveling a dead-end road in which survivors often find themselves experiencing a second trauma: having their claims ignored, interrogated, ridiculed or used against them.

The film has been instrumental in bringing the issue to Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate Armed Services Committees both held hearings on military sexual assault this year. Numerous Pentagon officials, including Hagel, have seen the film and it is now being used in sexual assault training programs throughout the military.

In the following interview, The Invisible War's director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Ziering, share their experiences of making the film and advocating for reform, the progress they've seen so far and what else needs to happen in order to make sexual assault in the military truly the anomaly it was long believed to be. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Anna Simonton (AS): One of the most important things this film has done is to change the dialogue about sexual assault in the military. Rather than framing the problem as scandals that sometimes happen because of a few bad apples, people are now talking about it as a widespread, ongoing, institutional problem. Can you speak to that?

Kirby Dick (KD): Yes, this issue has been in the news in the past with Tailhook and the Air Force Academy, and the military has been able to present these scandals as isolated. People in this country were completely unaware, for the most part, that this was something systemic. This is not something that happens at one base or another. It happens at all bases overseas, it happens at all bases domestically, it happens in all branches. That is something that I think has really come as a shock to the public, to members of Congress, even to members of the military. I think the film has changed the discussion from this being isolated to a particular base to: No, this is a systemic problem that has to be addressed with major policy changes.

AS: Two days after viewing the film, Leon Panetta made changes to the chain of command in terms of who handles cases of sexual assault. But Lieutenant General Franklin's actions highlight the fact that this is still an issue. What change did Panetta make and how does it fall short of what is really needed to fundamentally challenge the problem of sexual assault in the military?

Amy Ziering (AZ): He moved it up the chain of command but he didn’t take it outside of the chain of command. It’s a fine first step to take that out of the unit commander’s hands, but there are conflicts of interest all the way up and you see that exemplified in the Air Force case. So we’re appreciative of their desire, but if they really want to take this on and do something, they have to take it outside the chain of command.

AS: There’s a statistic in the film that makes it clear how much of a problem the chain of command issue is: 33 percent of rape survivors in the military don’t report the rape because their commander is a friend of the perpetrator, and 25 percent don’t report because their commander is the perpetrator.

AZ: Yeah, and those are DoD statistics.

KD: It really needs to be moved outside of the chain of command where independent judges and independent prosecutors are overseeing the prosecutorial process. If victims perceive there is not impartial justice, they will not report. And this is where this issue of reporting is so critical because most of these assaults are caused by serial predators. If men and women who are assaulted don’t feel comfortable reporting, the serial predator who assaulted them will go on to assault again and again.

AS: The statistics the film provides reveal the enormity of this problem, but it's the stories survivors tell that are most powerful in showing how military sexual assault can destroy people's lives. What was the interview process like, and what stories in particular made an impact on you?

AZ: It was really intense and harrowing. I went into this naively, not really knowing a lot about the issue and having no background in trauma or therapy. I appreciate and applaud and am sort of astonished by people who can do this work in their lives daily because it’s…you don’t come out the same.

I was very sad visiting one woman, Christina, who said she hadn’t left her home for eight years. She had agoraphobia, which is not an uncommon symptom [of military sexual trauma]. When I met her she had just started, in the past year, going out of the house. She had a young daughter who, for her entire life, had not known a mother who left the house. I remember going to visit her and all her shades were drawn. It was a beautiful day out—it was mid-morning and her daughter was home. I said, “Oh, are your shades always drawn?” And she said, “Yes, absolutely, we don’t open them, that’s not safe.”

I remember Theresa. We went to her home in upstate New York. She’s only in our film for a second, and I remember leaving her house and she said to me, “You know, Amy, even if you don’t make this film, or if you make this film and I’m not in it, thank you so much for coming today because you’re the first person that ever believed me.” And she’s forty-something. [Her assault] happened twenty-something years ago. It’s things like that that you don’t walk away from.

AS: Can you talk about the stories that illuminate how the system punishes survivors of military sexual assault in ways that compound their trauma? One that stuck out to me, and that I’ve seen referenced a lot, was a woman who was single when she was raped, but because her rapist was married, she was charged with adultery, while no charges were brought against him.

KD: Yes, that was one that stuck out again and again. Three times we heard women say that they were single, raped by a married man and the women would be charged with adultery. The first time is appalling enough, but when you keep hearing the same thing it is so enraging. [As were] other situations…women are assaulted and then the perpetrator is put right back into the unit with these women. There was one where a woman had to take out the trash every day for her perpetrator. Another where her perpetrator had the responsibility to weigh her periodically. These are situations that in the civilian world we would find completely unacceptable that are going on in the military today.

AS: Have you stayed in touch with the survivors you interviewed? I find myself wondering particularly about Kori Cioca. [Cioca is the film’s lead, whose jaw was badly injured when her supervisor in the Coast Guard raped her. In the film, she continually tries to access her Veterans Affairs benefits for medical treatment that would ease her jaw pain and enable her to eat solid foods again, but is routinely denied.]

KD: We’ve kept very close relationships with all of the survivors and I think it’s been a very positive experience for the survivors. It allowed them to speak to people who believed them, who understood what they went through, who cared for them, and I think it allowed them to take this incredibly traumatic experience, the most painful experience in their lives, and become a part of something that’s positive, helping to protect men and women in the military today. As for Kori Cioca, the VA has never come forward to pay for the medical care she needs, but two civilians did after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s in the process of getting that care. It’s a community of people that has been built around the film and a wider group of people who are concerned about making the changes that have to be made.

AZ: I made this personal vow, because I’d started doing research and learned that there are a lot of treatments now for PTSD and MST—Military Sexual Trauma—that aren’t pharmaceutically based that can radically reduce symptoms. Like, you don’t have to have nightmares every night; you can go to the supermarket in the daytime. Just elementary things that I thought, “Wow, if I could give that gift to these women and give them a piece of their lives back, maybe I can’t do everything, but wouldn’t that be a nice thank you for them.”

And so I started trying to figure out how to do this and found two therapists who came up with a program and I tried to start raising money. I happened to mention this to one of our executive producers and it turns out that this is sort of her dream as well. She volunteered to put up the money for two pilot programs. She actually had the first program, five survivors from our film participated in it, and we’re having a second one in June. So that’s pretty cool and that’s definitely a very different thing. I stay in touch with some of the subjects from my films, but this is something I didn’t ever expect to do.

AS: The film is available on Netflix Instant, so folks with a Netflix account can see it that way. It’s also available on Amazon and iTunes. How can people get involved?

AZ: If people want to get involved they should go to our website: There are things they can do that would be super helpful. Most important right now is to put pressure on senators and congressmen. We have a lot of momentum on this issue and we think there’s room for things to actually happen, which would be incredible. If people are interested in helping our recovery efforts, we just got set up to take in some funding to help with that. We also have a listing of different places to volunteer.

KD: The military has a real moment of opportunity to address this issue. They addressed another major problem—racism—fifty years ago fairly successfully. Many of those men and women brought those values out of the military and passed them on to friends and family in the civilian world. Perhaps thirty or forty years from now we could be looking at a society in which misogyny is significantly reduced and we could be looking at the military as a leader on this.

I urge people to call their members of Congress, get in touch with their senators around this issue, particularly senators or representatives on the Armed Services Committee, and say that this issue has to be addressed. Remove the decision to investigate and prosecute these crimes out of the chain of command, that’s really the most important thing that needs to be done.

Read Stuart Klawans's review of The Invisible War.