What can we say? Kirby Dick is a director truly after our heart. Not only does he make incredibly powerful films about challenging topics that matter, he is a champion of discussion as a tool for change-making. It was for this reason that we are proud to present his films THE INVISIBLE WAR – in collaboration with MUBI – and THE HUNTING GROUND as our films of the month for November.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I find the unpredictability of the process very stimulating.
What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
My films have always focused on people who are outsiders, who critique established norms. I’ve made films about survivors of priest abuse trying to change the culture of complicity and cover-up in the catholic church; U.S. military veterans challenging the Pentagon over sexual assault; students launching legal suits against their institutions in order to make them safer for future generations; independent filmmakers speaking out against a biased U.S. movie rating system dominating the world film market; and of course, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who challenged established thinking and ideologies with his deconstructive critique.
We’ve talked before about your process of making films, screening early versions to small groups and listening to the conversations they generate as a way of gauging what the film communicates and how to develop it further. Can you discuss the importance of having these conversations? And your thoughts on the importance of discussion of documentaries in general?
As a documentary filmmaker, you become extremely familiar with the footage you’ve shot. This is good in that it helps you think through and understand what you have, but it becomes a challenge because you come to see the footage in a much different way than an audience who is seeing the film for the first time. Not only are you not seeing the material for the first time, but your understanding of the material is influenced by your experience of shooting the footage, by all the footage that you shot but is not in the cut, and by your often quite close relationship with the subjects.
During the editing process, an important way to get a sense of how audiences are seeing the material is to have periodic screenings of the cuts, which is something more and more documentary filmmakers are doing. I have a very specific protocol that I follow which has been invaluable for me. I generally do at least 10 screenings over the course of the editing process. I like the audience for a screening to be somewhere between 8 and 20 people, so there is a feeling of intimacy. Then I invite friends or friends of friends, but I don’t limit it to filmmakers, and, most importantly, I don’t invite people who’ve already seen a cut of the film.
Once the film is screened, I ask for comments. After someone has spoken, rather than responding myself, I ask for others to respond. I encourage the audience to engage in deep discussions on the content, political implications, aesthetics, and technical filmmaking aspects. Often these discussions are so profound and stimulating that they help me see the material and my films in ways that I hadn’t considered, and the films become better because of that.
There have been many exceptional and gratifying moments. A few that come to mind are for The Invisible War are: Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Pancetta announcing significant policy changes just two days after watching The Invisible War to announce significant military policy changes; the military screening the film to millions of its troops (it’s now a training tool on most bases); having retired soldiers come up to me and thank me for the film and tell me how it has helped change culture in the military; a packed Congressional hearing room with generals, admirals, and many of the US’s most powerful senators all referencing and praising the film as they discussed reforms.
For The Hunting Ground, some of these moments are: Governor Brown of California signing legislation to extend the statute of limitation for rape, something which reformers had been trying to accomplish for decades and something our film helped make possible; the film screening on thousands of colleges and universities and sparking change at each of those campuses; Vice President Joe Biden introducing our film and Lady Gaga at the Oscars and her receiving a standing ovation following her powerful performance of the film’s song alongside 50 survivors onstage, many of whom had appeared in our film. We received emails from around the globe for weeks following the Oscars from survivors and advocates saying it was a watershed historic moment in the victim’s rights movement.
No one is “pro-rape”, yet these films highlight major shortcomings in two major pillars in American culture – the military and higher education. Have you experienced any resistance to the films that you didn’t expect? How have you met that resistance.
Actually, rapists are “pro-rape,” and I think individually these (nearly all) men create an environment where they can continue to rape by demeaning women, questioning whether survivors are telling the truth, and disparaging systematic critiques of the institutions they are a part of. No surprise there. But we were initially surprised by attempts to discredit the film that came from some in the more “liberal” institutions, like the press and the law, which was an indication how pervasive the denial of rape is in our culture. However, since The Invisible War premiered in 2012 the films’ and our efforts to promote their message-combined with ongoing student activism, powerful voices in the press, and the Obama administration’s strong public position on campus sexual assault- has caused a historic change in how our culture views rape. But there continues to be strong countervailing forces (as embodied by one of the candidates in the US election) and this battle is far from won.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around these two films? Have they stirred up some strong opinions?
For the first time in our country’s history we are acknowledging how widespread sexual assault is, and we are beginning to place the blame for these violent crimes on the perpetrators instead of the victims. The military, to its credit, did not attack The Invisible War, but rather chose to heed it’s critique and use the film as a training tool. There has been some backlash from a few of the institutions that were criticized in The Hunting Ground. This isn’t surprising, they are reacting defensively by attacking the messenger and denying there is a problem rather than addressing the problem. This response is proof that we’ve touched a nerve, that we’ve uncovered something these institutions don’t want exposed. Most institutions are embracing the film – the film has screened on more than 1,000 campuses to date.
Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THE INVISIBLE WAR or THE HUNTING GROUND?
Encourage others to watch the films as they are game changers and change hearts and minds. Parents and students should all watch The Hunting Ground, as it provides information they are not getting from anywhere else – and all military personnel should watch Invisible War. For additional actions, see our films’ websites:
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Sisters in Law, The Interrupters, F is for Fake, Roger & Me, and Land without Bread
Interview by Isis Graham
THE INVISIBLE WAR – co-presented by MUBI– and THE HUNTING GROUND are Influence Film Club’s featured films for November 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Our November Film of the Month is co-presented by MUBI. As a gift to our North American North American Audiences, we are providing a free 60 day trial and access to our film of the month, The Invisible War, for the month of November.