@ The Movies

Two New Tough Documentaries: One on a Scandal Repressed and One on Repression Itself
Airman 1st Class Jessica Hinves, US Air Force, kneels under an aircraft, from “The Invisible War,” a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.

The Invisible War

Kirby Dick is one of those documentary filmmakers who thrives on controversial subject matter and pointedly picks controversial or adversarial subjects (e.g. “Outrage,” “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). His latest, “The Invisible War,”  fits that category and treats a troubling subject with very serious national implications, revealing one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military (the film, now at local theaters, is  rated “R” for sexual content and runs 97 min.).

“The Invisible War” doesn’t waste any time before it slams you in the face with its opening statements: a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire;  the Department of Defense  estimates that there was a shocking 19,000 violent sex crimes committed in the military in 2010;  twenty percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, (mostly women younger than 21). From there Dick presents you with the human voices behind the statistics as he interviews a range of women who relate their stories.

Particularly touching are the testimony of women like Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca, who was raped by her commanding officer and left with a broken jaw and nerve damage; Airman First Class Jessica Hinves, who, after her assault, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; and Navy Seaman Trina McDonald, repeatedly raped at a base in the Aleutian Islands.  

The film offers a measured, convincing indictment of the systematic cover-up of these military sex crimes (which occurred in all branches), chronicling the women’s struggles (and the case of one man also) to rebuild their lives and fight for justice.

Particularly unsettling for these rape victims is that they cannot appeal to an impartial police force and judicial system for help and justice.  These uniformed victims have to turn to their commanders—some of whom committed the offense.  Even appealing higher up the chain of command can be all too often met with foot-dragging at best, and even reprisals for “informing.” The film indicates that only eight percent of military sexual assault cases are ever prosecuted, with nothing like civilian punishments.

The film also features a miscellany of interviews with some high-ranking military officials, one of whom (a Rear Admiral) struggles to defend the system in general terms or, another (the civilian Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention Office) who seems clueless about the extent of the problem. The movie also shows a contingent of brave women who both try to bring suit against military authorities (they fail) and who press their case to members of Congress (several of whom are shown as sympathetic listeners).

Sad to note, this film touches particularly close to home in one sequence.  Two women in the film speak candidly about assaults suffered when they were assigned as Marine officers at the Marine Barracks right in the heart of  Capitol Hill. 

One of them, an Annapolis honors graduate with service in Iraq,  movingly testifies about her rape at the hands of her civilian supervisor and a senior officer in her own home in our neighborhood. She was, like many other victims, placed in the excruciating circumstance of having to file a complaint with her own boss, the perpetrator.  That ex-Marineis now a plaintiff in a civil suit against the DoD wherein she challenges the Marine Corps view that she must have welcomed the assaults because “she wore make-up and skirts” – which were part of her regulation uniform.

The film hardly condemns the entire Marine Corps itself or the Barracks contingent, which have long been a significant part of life on the Hill, participating in community events and inviting neighbors into their precincts.  Still, to illustrate its telling of this sometimes lurid story, the filmmakers display footage of some of the bar signs on Eigtht Street as well as some flashes of 8th Street SE streetscape (avoiding the Barracks themselves).

Ai Weiwei: Never Worry

Ai Weiwei is China's most famous artist, a bearded, chubby, and sardonic presence  known as much for thumbing his nose at his country’s domestic policies as for his strikingly varied artistic output. He also became China’s most famous dissident in 2011 when he was brusquely detained by Chinese authorities.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Worry” tells of the man, his art, and his mischief, narrating his personal history and surveying his works, documenting his needling of the Chinese system, and demonstrating his valiant embrace of digital media. Ai, it turns out,  has a significant connection with the US, having come to New York City to study in 1983 as a young man then leaving after 10 years to return to his homeland (he mentions a stint he did at the 2nd Avenue Deli in the city).

In subsequent years, he developed his style of eclectic conceptual art, including both elaborate and painstaking “constructions” and “environments” which he designs and then, with a group of loyal assistants, brings to fruition (one of his works is now on prominent display in Washington: “Fragments,” a massive structure of wood pieces from Qing dynasty temples graces the lobby of the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery on the Mall).

The film traces his protean career, beginning with his attaining worldwide fame with his design for the Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” stadium.  He then began receiving major commissions around the world.  Several of them are featured in this documentary, including his massive room of porcelain sunflower seeds in London, his large  remembrance piece for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, and his exhibition of gaudy over-painting of classic Neolithic vases.

Through it all, the film captures the rambunctious and slyly enigmatic character of the artist, who likes to describe himself in cryptic phrases, like “I’m more of a chess player, waiting for the next move.” It also highlights his addiction—a bit like a kid—to digital media and his love affair with cameras and Twitter (on which he has reached an international audience). Yet the film hits hard when you see this congenial, whimsical man under pressure from the authorities who cannot stomach his mocking outspokenness, such as giving the middle finger to Tiananmen Square.

 The film wraps with the sequence on his mysterious detention in April 2011, during which the government beat him and, among other things, interrogated him about the financing of his major commissions. He was released on bail after 81 days, just as mysteriously, but not before the regime bulldozed his newly built studio.  His final words to the camera in the film are a “So Sorry,” delivered with a mix of regret and irony.

 Ai Weiwei himself could hardly have found a better American collaborator to tell his story. First-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access to Ai while working in China, where she lived from 2006 to 2010 as a freelance journalist. This film is her baby: she directed, produced, filmed, and co-edited it and obviously developed an easy and deep rapport with the artist. She leaves a emorable character study.

 “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” was showcased at the American Film Institute’s Silver Docs Festival last month and is to be released in Washington theaters in July. (it runs 91 min.).

Long-time Capitol Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.


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