While I’ve been dragging my feet about how to frame my coverage of yet another powerful documentary about the U.S. military, I was shocked like many others to hear of Nora Ephron’s untimely death at 71. No connection, you say? Well, perhaps; but the career and life trajectory of writer/director Ephron, one of the few women who managed to successfully crack Hollywood’s old boys’ club, make fascinating counterpoints to the career challenges faced by the female soldiers profiled in The Invisible War.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering give new meaning to the dictum, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as they expose the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military in their new investigative documentary, The Invisible War. The statistics put forth in this film are staggering: “20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted. Female soldiers aged 18 to 21 accounted for more than half of the victims” in 2011.
The young women and one man profiled in The Invisible War, representing all four branches of the armed forces, were sexually harassed prior to their brutal rapes while on the job in their chosen profession, by male colleagues and, in some cases, by their superiors. With careers and lives forever derailed, as much from the ongoing military cover-ups as from their assaults, the soldiers struggle to regain their balance and dignity in the aftermath.
Yet, despite the fact that their dreams to serve this country have been irrevocably shattered, they never let go of the idealism, patriotism and purpose that led them to pursue careers in the military in the first place. This makes their current struggles for acknowledgement and restitution all the more painful and poignant.
Their victimizers, meanwhile, continue to thrive and rise through the ranks. It’s no surprise that, with prosecution rates for sexual predators in the U.S. military shockingly low, only 191 perpetrators were convicted at courts-martial out of the 3,192 assaults reported in 2011. Department of Defense statistics also estimate that “in 2011 alone, over 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military” and that “less than 14%” were reported.
The Invisible War is an eye-opener for those of us who believed that sexual harassment and assault in the workplace–and, specifically, in the U.S. military–are history. Which leads me to Nora Ephron’s legacy.
Much has been written about the universally beloved writer/director/feminist Nora Ephron whose body of work will live on to give us a much-needed boost during challenging times of our lives. Her female characters, most memorably embodied by Meryl Streep and Meg Ryan, tackle many of the issues we face as women as we attempt to forge healthy, loving communicative relationships with men (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle), reinvent ourselves (Julie & Julia, You’ve Got Mail) and navigate the minefields of infidelity (Heartburn), toxic environments (Silkwood) and aging (I Feel Bad about My Neck).
In real life, Ephron dodged two bullets until she made a good match with husband #3, author Nicholas Pileggi. In an industry run by men, she conceived, wrote and directed a string of box office hits featuring memorable female protagonists. Few women, then and now, have such a track record. She fought in the Hollywood trenches and came out with a good marriage, kids and a fine body of work that encourages women to challenge the status quo.
While Ephron’s New York sensibility and sense of humor permeate her work, her films give all women–Blue state, Red state and those in-between–a voice and a happy ending. For Ephron, obstacles were meant to be surmounted, a point she made clear in her commencement speech to 1996 grads, all women, at her alma mater, Wellesley College (MA):
“My class went to college in the era when you got a master’s degree in teaching because it was ‘something to fall back on’ in the worst case scenario, the worst case scenario being that no one married you and you actually had to go to work. … We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics or careers that mattered, or opinions, we were meant to marry them. … Be the heroine of your life, not the victim. … Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
The dedicated female soldiers who courageously agreed to come out of the shadows and tell their painful stories in The Invisible War, after exhausting every avenue for justice through military channels, are doing just that.—Judith Trojan
Screening updates and additional info on The Invisible War (written & directed by Kirby Dick; and produced by Amy Ziering & Tanner King Barklow) can be found at http://invisiblewarmovie.com/