The 2013 Oscars, scheduled for February 24, are right around the corner. Contenders like ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Les Miserables’ have already been watched, discussed and popularised. The lesser known nominees, however, are just as worthy of viewing and praising. In particular, behind the glitz and glamour of A-list celebrities receiving accolades are the non-celebrity protagonists of real life narratives: Those whose stories are told through documentaries. Over the next few weeks, until the Oscars, we have a look at the five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category.

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Viewers from Pakistan are very likely to make judgments about ‘The Invisible War’ even before they’ve watched it. A quick online search will tell you the movie is about the American military, one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

With the ‘War on Terror’ playing out in Pakistan’s backyard, the US military is strongly associated with drone strikes, the Afghanistan War next door and covert deals with our own powerful army. One is not prepared, however, for the view of the US army, navy and air force presented in this shocking documentary – the atrocities it perpetrates, systematically, against its own members.

So while one has heard and read much about sexual assault and rape of local civilians by US soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, few will know before this movie just how disturbingly widespread this phenomenon is within the military itself.

‘The Invisible War’ combines a series of shocking statistics (taken from military records themselves) with interviews of brave women who have decided to speak of the sexual assaults they suffered while serving, often at the hands of their commanding officers. Alongside these interviews and numbers, which are eye-opening in their own right, the documentary’s writer and director, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, also interview high-ranking military officers who defend their institutions’ ability to protect their members from sexual assault. This empty rhetoric and ‘official line’ only further highlights how deeply embedded the culture of official apathy, cover-ups and denial is.

This denial is in light of the fact that at least half a million women have either been raped or sexually abused in the US military in the last decade. Half a millon. If this doesn’t shock you, be prepared for many more facts that will, including the fact that men entering the military are far more likely than the civilian population to already have committed a sexual misdemeanour, that 80 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported for fear of very real institutional retaliation, and that out of 3,192 sexual-assault reports in 2011 only 191 members of the military were convicted at courts martial.

Others are either not charged at all, or get off on the lightest of charges. In some devastating cases, the women themselves are punished with charges of adultery and misdemeanour. They are often threated by their commanding unit’s higher-ups that their reports will be proven false and they will lose their jobs and their honour.

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Three women’s stories stand out in particular – Kori Cioca, a young and beautiful woman who served in the US Coast Guard and was brutally raped by a commanding officer. During the assault, the rapist broke her jaw. To this day, her assailant roams free. The Veteran Affairs Association, meanwhile, refuses to provide her with medical benefits for her broken jaw, even five years after the rape.

Then, there’s Trina McDonald – a woman, who many decades down the line, still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being drugged and raped repeatedly at an isolated Navy base in Alaska. The perpetrators of the crime here too, roam scot-free. This theme runs throughout the documentary. Not only have these rapists been immune to conviction, many have been honoured in the military for their services even while there have been ongoing investigations against them.

For the victims of the abuse, as they say, this impunity is almost, if not more devastating, than the trauma of the sexual assault itself.

Ariana Klay’s story, meanwhile, shows how a successful, ambitious woman serving in the highly prestigious Marine Baracks in Washington DC is subject to systematic sexual abuse, which is consequently covered up by high-ranking officials who say that ‘her make-up and her skirts’ must have invited the sexual advances.

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The women’s stories combined with the devastating impact they continue to have on their lives and on their families’ lives, are disturbing to say the least. And the movie’s message was so powerful that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, within 48 hours of watching the movie, took away the privilege of handling sexual assault cases from commanding officers (often) the perpetrators and handed it over to higher-ranking officers.

But, as the filmmakers say at the end of the movie, it’s just not enough. To this day, anyone suffering sexual assault of any kind in the US military is legally bound to accept that rape ‘is a hazard’ that comes with being part of the army, navy or air force – and that the military is not responsible.

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‘The Invisible War’, meanwhile, also has a look at sexual assault against men in the military – which, according to people interviewed, actually exceeds abuse of women because of the sheer number of males in the military. While the movie is extremely well-researched, what could have made it even more powerful was perhaps (although of course access would be extremely difficult) to go into military barracks and institutions themselves, to have a deeper look at why the culture of assault is so prevalent and why so many military officers, whether peers or seniors, feel no need to stand up and speak up for the victims.

Still, the last Oscar-nominated documentary in this blog series raises some hard-hitting questions for viewers from Pakistan. Here too, the military is an organisation that is associated, in most people’s heads, with strong discipline, honour and absolute power. At the end of ‘The Invisible War’, one is left wondering how many men and women in the Pakistan Armed Forces have been sexually violated and remain imprisoned by a culture of absolute silence on the matter.

 

View Dawn.com’s review of the five Best Documentary Features, Oscars 2013 here.

 


 

The writer is Features Producer at Dawn.com

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