Invisible War, pavements and tipping points

Invisible War (2012) is a harrowing film about sexual assault within the US military. I caught it at a community screening and discussion night at a university campus in London last month. It has had a huge impact; it is an incredibly powerful film with a very clever and well executed outreach and impact campaign making waves on a number of levels.

Two days after he screened the film, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta changed the reporting structure so that a service member’s immediate supervisor no longer is the only person to whom a victim can report an abuse.

“Clearly this film has changed the conversation,” former federal prosecutor and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Woodruff, adding that at his request, the military is expected to release more reliable data on sexual assault in the military this spring. – PBS Article - Invisible War; changing the conversation on rape in the Military

Invisible War had great strategy; they brought influential and well connected Executive Producers on board, engaged a Washington D.C based dedicated media team, FitzGibbon Media, who specialise in leveraging policy change with media, worked with Film Spout to build a community screening outreach campaign which targetted students and military and managed an online campaign. FitzGibbon provide a good case study of their work and the impact of the film and Film Sprout publish a discussion guide on their site.

The online campaign Invisible No More (#notinvsible) invites viewers to take action by signing a petition, hosting a screening, donating to the campaign or spreading the word via social media or email. It also encourages audiences to ‘Stand With Survivors’ and it’s three aims are to; raise awareness, effect political and cultural change and serve as a means of healing for survivors of Military Sexual Assault.

Through their partnership with Film Sprout (more on Film Sprout in an upcoming post, they do great work and can someone please start an org like this in Australia?) the film has been seen by over 266,000 service people (this is the conservative estimate) at over 350 screenings on military bases across the country. The film is now being used as a training tool within the military, which is huge. This community distribution was part of a year long community screening campaign that involved over 950 screenings across the US.

Invisible War also had great timing. The film was released at a time when there were senators who needed a way to amplify long standing campaigns to address sexual assault in the military and as the military were facing recruitment issues and need to bring more women in to the force to bolster numbers.

There is not doubt that the team behind Invisible War have done a remarkable job of generating impact with powerful film, but it is also important to place their campaign alongside other ideas and events in this space to really be able to understand how the tipping points came about.

Obviously there is an incredibly long continuum of activism, body of writing and film work responding to sexual assault, not just within the military, that is part of the ground on which Invisible War builds. At the moment I am focusing on how documentary films sit within the culture, so I have asked a number of people about films that came before Invisible War that also contributed to this debate and ability of this film to make such dramatic change.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful (2011) uncovers the outrageous water contamination at an army base and its impact on service people.

Between 1957 – 1987 an estimated 750,000 to 1,000,000 people may have drank and bathed in tap water containing extremely high concentrations of toxic chemicals at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It is believed to be one of the largest water contamination incident s in US history. – Semper Fi Website

The film and subsequent campaign resulted in President Obama signing the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in to law in 2012.

Another important recent film regarding women in the military is Lioness.

Lioness (2008) tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who were part of the first program in American history to send women into direct ground combat. – Lioness Website

Official policy barred the armed services from assigning women to direct ground combat units in most situations, regardless of how well they perform under fire. Instead, when commanders want to put talented women soldiers on combat teams, they must do so by temporarily “attaching” them to those units, or sending them in a support role, rather than an official combat role. While Team Lioness was “attached,” but not “assigned” on paper, to combat arms units, they performed effectively in combat even without the combat MOS training that was exclusively available to males. As a result, the women performed in direct combat operations with less accolades, opportunities for advancement, recognition, and deserved VA benefits upon return. -Lioness wikipedia

Being ‘attached’ and not officially assigned to combat resulted in these women not having access the same post conflict support as their male counterparts. Lioness is now being used in Dept of Defense training for military healthcare personnel, was responsible for two new acts of legislation and played a pivotal role in ‘improving women veterans’ access to healthcare in the Veterans Affairs system’.

It’s also important to point to the work of grass roots organisations and social movements organising against war and their impact on the narratives around conflict and the military. Of particular note is the inspiring Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Their four day testimonial event, Winter Soldier, held in Washington D.C in 2008 was an incredibly powerful and important discussion of military process and policy.

EDITED NOTE: I met with someone from IVAW yesterday and he mentioned the role of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in changing policy and running campaigns on military sexual trauma, so I wanted to make sure I linked to them too.

As Judith Helfand of Working Films noted when we met last week, no one film is a silver bullet. Change can be encouraged by a film and the most successful impact seems to involve a good story, well told, with a smart strategy for distribution, well thought out pathways for audience activation, good publicity, marketing and outreach.

My sense is that the best shot at making change with a film is to have all of this super strategic stuff in place and then hope that it lines up with that delicious aspect of luck, zeitgeist and timing that is the ever elusive spark of tipping points.

Invisible War is a great example of a powerful film which lined up all their strategy and hit at just the right time to really send sparks flying.

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