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Amy Ziering breaks the silence
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“I think there’s something going on with people not wanting to believe this crime is actually happening.”
Conversations
22 February 2017

Amy Ziering breaks the silence

Interview by Berry Liberman
Sandy Rogulic

Berry Liberman on Amy Ziering

For thousands of women around the world, Amy Ziering has become a fierce and powerful champion. She and long-time collaborator Kirby Dick made The Invisible War, a groundbreaking documentary investigating the epidemic of rape in the US military.

The film won many major awards and inspired a wave of unprecedented new laws designed to protect women in the armed forces. How did one film create the conditions for such radical and sweeping changes in one of the world’s most powerful institutions? The answer, in part, is chutzpah. Not satisfied with releasing the film into the world only to have it fade away after a few screenings, Amy had a simple yet determined strategy of getting it into the hands of the most influential members of the military. The idea being that if they saw it, they couldn’t ignore it. It paid off.

Her latest film, The Hunting Ground, tells a similarly harrowing story of rape on college campuses. The title illustrates the depth of the problem: that predators who perpetrate violence are often protected—by silence, status and victim-blaming. As one survivor says about reporting her rape to a university administrator: “I thought if I told them they would take action, but the only action they took was against me.” The shocking part for Amy has been the public vilification directed at her and the victims for bringing light to these sexual assault cases. Who would have thought that it would prove more threatening to take on universities than the Pentagon? I’m curious about someone who has the courage to tackle these enormous institutions. Thankfully, Amy is the kind of activist storyteller who doesn’t see the risks in telling the controversial story, only the imperatives to do so.

On the day we meet she is speaking at a Good Pitch event, discussing secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. Amy herself began experiencing mild symptoms of PTSD from days of empathic listening to testimonies of violent abuse. Maybe this is a clue as to why we find it so hard as a society to believe victims of violence—that somehow trauma can be transferred, and so we avoid it at any cost, even blame the victims. Maybe it makes us feel too vulnerable. Too unsafe. Too powerless. How lucky we are then when brave people step forward to shine a light in the darkness.

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: Your film, The Invisible War speaks of the endemic problem of rape in the military and your recent film, The Hunting Ground is telling similar stories of women, predominantly women, being failed by a system that should protect them. The film’s push for accountability, protection of the survivors and the rightful prosecution of the attackers is heavy stuff.  So I guess my first questions is, what makes you want, or have the courage, to tackle the issues you do?

AMY ZIERING: I don’t have an easy answer to that question. I actually don’t reflect, I just do. I would say, “Why doesn’t everybody want to do this? To speak out about things that are wrong?” And courage absolutely does not enter the spectrum. Honestly.  And I’m not being disingenuous or humble. Making The Invisible War people were saying, “You’re so brave!” And it just didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t even understand that. With The Hunting Ground it’s maybe a bit different. It’s ironic that taking on institutions like colleges and universities in America feels more threatening than taking on the Pentagon. I don’t feel more courageous but I am more in the crossfire right now of the cultural war around this issue. It’s devastating that when you report a violent crime out of goodwill and try to protect others from experiencing that crime you become ostracised, blamed and vilified. That’s something we deal with daily with these survivors who are speaking up about sexual assault on campuses.

Can we pull that apart for a moment? Is this just the big black hole of human behaviour? How is this happening?

I wish I knew. I mean the thing that’s so staggering is that this crime is statistically correlative to any other crime in our society in that the rates of false reporting are the same. Meaning two to eight percent of reports of rape are false, just like any other crime in our society, at least in America, and 92 to 98 percent of reports are true. And yet with any other crime, when someone comes forward and makes a report, you don’t find them being asked, “Oh are you sure you didn’t give them the TV? What were you wearing when they took your TV?” You know? You don’t have the suspicion. “Were you drunk when you say he robbed you?” And yet those are the absolute first questions asked of anyone who comes forward and reports rape. It’s as unlikely that you’re making this up as it is that you’re making up any other crime in America.

I think there’s something going on with people not wanting to believe this crime is actually happening.

It’s maybe too horrible for people to go there because then you yourself feel vulnerable to it. It does have to do with socio-economic factors if we look at who the perpetrators are and who the victims are and who society likes to protect. You know, patriarchal institutions. In many instances the perpetrators are people in positions of power. And our society tends to protect those in power.

Let’s talk about The Invisible War. It had an enormous impact on policy. Thirty-five new laws have come into play as a result of you having the chutzpah to get the film into the hands of the people who needed to see it. You were told there are five people who really needed to see this film for any real change to happen. And you had one DVD of it which you weren’t letting out of your hands. So at every screening you got people to put their emails down and then you sent them an email that said…

It said, “These are the five guys who are running our military. If you know them, if your kids play basketball with them, if you went to school with their wives, get in touch with me. I have a favour to ask them.” The idea being that I would then invite them to wherever I was to see this one DVD. I had to be there watching it with them.

That’s an amazing ask. Because it’s reaching out to community in a very simple, very grassroots way with authenticity and honesty and just saying, “We need this. This is a really major piece of the puzzle.”

Right. It’s really important to have what I call “a grass-tops and a grassroots strategy.” We definitely need the grassroots.

We need public outrage, we need widespread awareness, we need culture change. And all films do that once you watch them. But how do we get that other element, the buy-in from the grass-tops—people in direct power and influence who can really change this issue?

And how do we get them to actually watch the film? ‘Cause too often those people, like Leon Panetta, are at such a high level they won’t take 90 minutes of their time to sit and watch a documentary. He’s just not going to watch it.

Leon Panetta is the Secretary of…

Was the Secretary of Defence in America at the time our film came out. Huge influencer, and it’s a huge ask to get that kind of focus or drive from him. So it was really important for us, and for anyone doing this kind of activist work with films, to figure out who those influencers are that actually need to see it. And when you said I kept control of the DVD, it was so it wouldn’t get handed off to all the people these key influencers have working under them who are there to protect them from crazy filmmakers like me…

[Laughs].

…from showing the “bad” news. So I did have the DVD after Sundance under lockdown even though it was in high demand. There was so much buzz from the festival and so much positive press that everyone was calling me wanting a screener. And I really was ferociously guarded and said “no” because I knew my only chance was that window where I was in possession of something that no one else could have. If it was out on Amazon the influencers would automatically just say, “Watch it, tell me what the talking points are and write her back a nice email.” But now I had hot property.

It all speaks to what I want to talk about around chutzpah. It wasn’t an aggressive thing what you did. It was that you knew this film had powerful potential and was in demand and you were holding the space for the magic to happen. Not pushing your way into these top five before you put it out in the world.

Well, the chutzpah part is funny because it was not an easy thing. I remember Senator Boxer came up to me, she’s one of the most powerful women in the senate, and she had come to Sundance, and she wanted a screener. So it takes chutzpah to say “no” to Senator Boxer. Especially when you don’t want to anger her and you want to be able to call a favour from her later. To gently say, “I’m just not releasing screeners right now,” is tough. Then someone else came up to me and said, “I know you want to get it to Obama. I’m friends with Michelle. Give me a screener, I’m jumping on a plane,” and I was like, “Hmmm.” It wasn’t a trust thing, it’s that the temptation would then be for them to show it to her chief of staff or something, and never actually get to Michelle. I just figured I have this one time in the world to control something, and if I fail, I fail. And then I’ll hand out the DVDs happily.

Were you scared of failure at this point?

No! I wasn’t anything! I was like, “This is what I need, this is the only way I can conceivably get it. I’m nobody, I have no connections to any of these people. But if I keep scarcity on my side, that’s my only card. That’s my only trump card.”

So after Sundance you sent out this email. And then…

And then someone called me and said, “My sister-in-law saw your film at Sundance. She said you’re a nice lady. I’m having lunch tomorrow with so-and-so, she’s married to someone extraordinarily high up in the military. What’s your ask?” And I said, “I have one thing. I want to show her the film. And do you feel comfortable asking her that?” And she said, “Sure! She’s a big girl, we’re close friends, I’ll ask her that.” And the next day she called me back and said, “Here’s her phone number,” and I ended up being able to screen it for this woman privately in DC.

Wow.

She’s a high-level military person. And so weeks from Sundance I did what we had been told was the impossible: we got someone in that kind of position of power to actually sit down and focus on our work. And this sreening ended up being a real game-changer.

The rest was history. It’s now used as a teaching tool in the US military. One of the things that it has taught men in the military is what to do as bystanders of abuse. And it’s empowered women to speak where before they might not have.

And it’s highlighted the severity, gravity and ubiquity of this problem. I remember we did a screening, another grass-tops screening, to try  to affect change for 19 retired generals. And this was in DC. A couple of months after the film came out a general came up to me and said,
“I need to really go back and look at so many cases now. Watching this film made me think. There are some cases where I think I was just too quick to accept the word of a commander. I didn’t understand the complexity and psychology of it.”

Because one common modus operandi of the perpetrators is really to start a whole white noise campaign around the victim:

“Oh, she’s a slut, she came onto me.” They really kind of set it up so they’ve got the woman parading around drinking with them thinking they’re with a nice guy, and then they know how to cover it up. And this general’s really disturbed, he’s really troubled. Which is why it’s such a danger to have people who are misinformed adjudicating these crimes. And that’s why, as I also say, “Why aren’t you doing films on rape in the culture at large?” Because in certain institutions they provide perfect-storm conditions for these crimes to be committed over and over again and have nothing happen. With impunity.

Why are these institutions so dangerous? What is the perfect storm for sexual violence to occur in them?

Well, you have a target-rich environment, which means you have a lot of young trusting and inexperienced men and women, in the military and on campuses. On campuses the crime is predominately perpetrated, as far as the studies we have to rely on go, on women. So you have a target-rich environment with a lot of young women. Some of them haven’t had a lot of sexual experience. So they don’t really know what the social morays are. If someone says to you, “Here have a drink, here have another,” they don’t know they can say “no!” I heard this over and again: “He said come upstairs and I thought well maybe that’s what people do,” you know, they don’t want to offend someone or be impolite! They’re not worldly enough—and predators can exploite their naïveté.

Yeah! And the culture is experimentation and “I don’t want to be viewed as a hick with no idea!”

Right! So there’s a lot of that. And in the film we interview a predator who affirms all this. There’s really no good mechanisms in place for any kind of fair adjudication and investigation of these crimes. Institutions like the military and the campuses are counter-intuitively incentivised to cover up these crimes rather than care about them. It’s more cost-effective, less time-consuming. You would think as a student that your college would be on your side. It’s not with these crimes. And that was the same with the military. A commander’s promotions are often related to him demonstrating a unit’s cohesion. So it’s much easier to discharge a woman who he thinks is causing trouble than get rid of a prized soldier. He can just say, “She was too unstable.” Because often after you’re raped and assaulted repeatedly and no one’s believing you, you implode from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and then it’s easy to make the victim go away as opposed to really punish the perpetrator. So the assault survivor would be discharged and a new victim would arrive in the unit. You’d see the cycle repeat and repeat and repeat.

So you personally don’t come from that place of trauma. But you have immersed yourself in that narrative of trauma. These are really harrowing landscapes to enter and to hold the space for. How do you create a safe space for someone to tell their authentic story?

Well, the first thing I always do, and it’s totally sincere and true, is sit them down and say:

“This isn’t about me or the film. This is about you. And in no way, shape or form do I want what goes on in this room to harm you in any way. So if at any time you want to stop the interview, if at any time you want to leave, if you change your mind halfway, if you think about it later and don’t feel comfortable with a certain question being included in the film, that’s fine. It’s all about you.”

And I really meant that sincerely. I didn’t use the language of “safe space,” but this is a space that I hope is empowering, free of judgement, open. “You leave, you don’t sign a release, that’s cool.” And I think that really did help. I mean there were interviews that we just left. People pulled out. And there was never a thought or a question and it’s always about them first. I think that’s why we were able to get such amazing interviews.

I’ve made documentaries in the past and I have to say I’ve made the rookie mistake of not seeing the person telling the story so much as the outcome. Never anything to the degree of the issues you’ve been addressing, but nevertheless
I didn’t have the maturity to understand what you’ve just talked about: the person in front of you comes first.

Right. They’ve been through enough. I don’t want to do anything that increases their burden. “If there’s any way I can have this be a positive experience for you, that’s the way I want it to go.”

So how have you personally sustained this kind of journey into the heart of darkness with the work, and also just the full-on stress of being a filmmaker?

It’s not easy. I don’t like to talk about it because I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing this work. What was surprising to me was that fairly early on in the game making The Invisible War, I started developing secondary PTSD. And what was so interesting about that was now I have such insight into PTSD, how it sneaks up on you. The symptomology is interesting.

How so?

Well, Kirby and I didn’t have any funding for The Invisible War so the two of us drove around the country without a crew doing these interviews. And we naively booked three a day. Thinking “no big deal,” right? Again. Right?

Ick!

“Well, you know, this is the first movie, we’ll do three prom interviews a day! Piece of cake!” So on day three we leave the house of Theresa, this woman in upstate New York who we’d just interviewed, and Kirby and I are, we’ve worked together forever, like an old married couple. We sit down in the car and he says, “What did you think of the interview?” And of course like an old married couple I know what that means, “I think you did a terrible job with the interview.”

[Laughs].

So I’m like, “It was good. It was fine. What?” You know! And he knows to be quiet. So I was like, “end of story.” And that night we go into a motel, it was very thrifty. And I start thinking, Are my doors locked? I’m on the first floor. And I was like, Wait, I’m on the first floor. There’s a parking lot right there. Like, I better go check I should lock the door! I better close this! Should I try to move to a different floor? And I had trouble sleeping. So the next morning I remember coming down for breakfast. I came in and I looked at Kirby at breakfast and said, “I know what happened at that interview. I shut down.” I had to show up, I was professional. But I didn’t want to hear that story. That’s what he sensed. It was this different Amy interviewing Theresa. And I couldn’t admit it or even understand it, everything was starting to really get to me and I realised
I needed to do something to take care of it. So I immediately called Tanner who was our production co-ordinator and I said, “We need to upgrade from motels. I need treadmills. And we only are doing two a day, so change the whole shoot schedule.” He had to call a million people and say, “We’re not coming today, we’re coming tomorrow.” So we did all these little remedies and they totally helped.

You needed to get the endorphins running.

Yeah. De-stress.

Someone once told me, “The body is the last to weep,” and it’s so true.

I’m doing the phone interviews first and then going around the country doing these interviews, it was really taking its toll.

And they were interviews with women who had been raped in the military, just to clarify.

Right. But what is so instructive to me about this lesson of my own completely minor trauma compared to the real trauma of the people surviving these horrible, horrible violent acts is, if it affects me as a witness in this way, like, imagine how  it’s affecting a) the survivors, b) their loved ones, and c) all the people around them. And how it just weaves this web of illness in our whole society, which is why we’re all in this together. Unprocessed trauma affects us all.

I actually think there is a huge clue here in what I asked at the start: why the hell are the victims blamed? And why is there so much blindness and cover up? I think because it is so hard to look into the darkness, to have that self-awareness, and the training to some degree, to go there. Think of all these people who are told to shut down their feelings. I mean, you had the outlet of telling a story.

Right, and what’s so important about what you’re saying is that when you do listen you help someone pass through their trauma so much more quickly—when you listen with empathy. When people say, “What’s the one thing I can do? I’m overwhelmed by your film. What’s the one thing I can do?” I say, “Just listen. Listen and believe someone if they tell you this happened to them.” Because what I found in the military and what I found on campuses was if the person gets communal support instead of communal castigation, they’re able to work through their trauma so much more quickly. And if the opposite happens, it exponentially multiplies that trauma.

Just believe survivors. We will see social change if that happens. And maybe you’ll be in the wrong two percent of the cases. Let’s take that risk and just imagine a world where we take this crime seriously and respond to it with compassion.

I think you’re right that the guilt and shame in community at not being able to have these conversations further pushes it underground. “Don’t talk to me, I can’t talk about this. Therefore it didn’t happen and you’re just making it up.”

What’s interesting, especially because you’re trying to unpack where this all comes from, is that, in America at least, we’re somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to sex.

Everything’s about sex: advertising, movies, music—it’s all sex. But god forbid you should actually really talk about sex.

You know? You can’t actually have an onerous conversation about your own personal sexual activities and yet the messages we get daily is  that it’s all you should want and look for and push for and dress for. I interviewed a prosecutor who had worked for 20 years, rape cases was one of her specialities. She defended prostitutes who were accusing their johns of rape or their pimps of rape. And she said it was virtually impossible to get anyone on a jury to be sympathetic to that. She was banging her head against the wall. She’d never get convictions. The juries were always like, “Well, they’re a prostitute, what do you expect?” Or, “How do we know, we can’t trust them. They’re using sex, selling their bodies for money.”

She said one day a light bulb went off. She sat every juror in the room down and said, “Okay, you all don’t know each other. Everybody think of your most positive recent sexual experience. Like, best sex you’ve just had. Got it? All right. Now one of you volunteer and stand up and tell us about it. Anyone? And once you tell us about your amazing sex I’m going to ask you a whole series of questions about it in graphic detail. And we’re going to all listen.” And she said, “Okay, now if none of you want to do that, why do you think my client wants to stand up in a room with strangers and talk in graphic detail over and over again about one of the worst moments in her life?  Why would she do that?” So it’s interesting. It’s this sort of shame around conversations about sex or not wanting to hear it.

And not knowing what to do or say when you do hear it. What you’re saying is, just listen.

Yeah. Believe. Empathically, listen empathically.  Don’t challenge. Hold that space, as you were saying. Be a container for it.

And uncomfortable is actually okay—if it’s in the service of healing and listening. I really think we don’t talk enough about just being uncomfortable. Have you felt threatened telling these stories and putting them out in the world?

I have not. I have the good fortune of being too old to be on social media.

[Laughs].

I miss my typewriter so I’m going to be okay. But what happens to these women who come forward has been really ugly.

You’ve got three daughters.

I’ve got three daughters.

How have they been affected by the work?

You would have to ask them. I mean, I think they wished I’d do comedies! It must be weird to be like, “This is what we’re talking about over dinner again?” I honestly don’t know. I’ve never talked about it. I don’t think I would have wanted the burden of knowing what they had to know at their age—from overhearing my work conversations.

My eldest daughter actually just got into graduate school and on her application she said she would do a project related to gender violence. And my middle one’s definitely a very vocal feminist. And the baby too.

I’m also interested in what you’ve had to confront in yourself telling these stories.

Well, I’ve always been into social justice and I’ve always been interested in feminism so this work just made sense to me. But I also had a thread of academic interest in trauma, which came out at Sundance in an interview. I’d never actually put it together before. I like to be behind the lens and hear other people’s stories and then someone asked me, “Why trauma?” And a bulb went off. Again, talk about repression and denial and non-reflection! But my dad was actually a Holocaust survivor. I’m the daughter of a survivor, may he rest in peace. He’s no longer alive. I mean, he talked about it extremely rarely—we had the gift of a blissful ignorance. But he did, in the very few conversations I had with him, talk about the ways in which he tried to talk to people when he got out of the camps. They didn’t believe him. And they didn’t want to hear it. And he just shut down. And I could see growing up that he really shut down emotionally. He just decided, “Okay, that’s a story that no one else can handle and I can’t get support with. That’s just a part of my life I’m going to not deal with.”

I think part of my desire to always champion or help someone else through their trauma is from my own unprocessed desire to make things better for my dad.

It’s interesting to hear you frame it that way—that trauma is at the heart of your storytelling. What do you think makes a good story?

So we follow the classic feature-film structure: strong protagonists with a narrative arc that develops over three acts. With The Hunting Ground, we were able to capture a student movement in real-time. A lot of documentaries capture movements but it’s always in retrospect—archival footage. But we were on the ground as this incredible thing was happening that hasn’t happened since the ’70s. And exponentially goes beyond what happened in the ’70s thanks to social media, by allowing people to network and organise in ways that had never happened before. So that was super exciting. We have this amazing arc of these activists that we follow from start to finish. And that was our storytelling technique there.

The other thing we did was try to have a multiplicity of voices echo and amplify what the major voices, the major storylines are saying. That way you get a sense, especially with the issues we were dealing with, of not only it happening to these few people, but it being systemic and widespread. And the ubiquity and awful “common-place-ness” of this horror. So we did that by having what we call these “Greek choruses” of different survivors echoing and amplifying what the main story characters were saying.

So in a way traditional frameworks are incredibly useful when the story speaks for itself.

Exactly. And we steal the tropes from pop culture and from fiction. Right? We like to have a really strong villain because people like to have somewhere to focus their energy, otherwise we find with activist films it gets really diffused and people don’t really know what to do with their feelings. “Oh! I’m sad but I don’t know what to do.” So we steal that page from narrative films.

Do you have faith in humanity and its ability to change?

What if I say “no”? I wish I did. I guess I’m a pessimistic optimist.

You’ve already seen real change though.

I think I have. But we’ve got a long way to go. And maybe it’s the fact that I’m a pessimistic optimist that keeps me going, right?

If I thought that we were on the descent of the mountain, I wouldn’t be working this hard.

I’m inspired by so many wonderful storytellers who are doing this kind of social-activist work to propel social change. That gives me hope.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Sandy Rogulic

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