Acclaimed Film Producer Addresses Social Justice Issues
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:15
Amy Ziering '84
Ziering won the Emmy Award at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with “The Invisible War.”

Five seconds into my interview with Amy Ziering ’84, the distinguished producer and director of Academy Award-nominated “The Invisible War” (2012) and Emmy nominee “Outrage” (2009) tells me, “You know, I hate talking about myself. What about you? What do you study?” I knew I was supposed to stay on track and get the story, but her curious demeanor disarmed me as I slipped into a digression about my life.

“I’m not usually the one being interviewed,” Ziering said, who makes documentaries, a genre in which questioning people is her job. She spoke in such a casual, good-humored manner; it was easy to forget that I was on assignment.

“The Invisible War”

Ziering’s latest film, “The Invisible War,” investigates the rampant sexual assault in the U.S. military. After reading an article on the issue in Salon back in 2008, Ziering was stunned that this was such a prevalent problem within the culture of the armed forces. She and her long-term collaborator, Kirby Dick, got right on the story.

“I just started calling people up and soon I was hooked,” Ziering said. “I was infuriated.”

According to Ziering, one of the biggest challenges about making a film about the military was figuring out how to present a story that would be seen not as an attack but as a critique.

“How can you make a powerful critique which all sides are still receptive to? How do you make it bipartisan and something that you can’t turn away from?” she said.

Although this was a sensitive topic, the people who were willing to speak to Ziering were grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories.

“Before the film, most survivors didn’t understand that this was a problem for other people,” she said. “I would call and people would ask, ‘Why are you calling me?’ This just happened to me, to which I would say, ‘No, actually, this happened to many other people in your battalion as well.’”

By making the film, Ziering brought light to this widespread issue — this invisible war waged within our own military — both to America and to many of the survivors themselves.

Dick calls Ziering’s interviews “the soul of the film,” and “some of the most caring and revelatory I’ve ever seen on film.”
He added, “Again and again, Amy was able to get survivors of military sexual assault to open up about the most private and painful experiences of their lives, yet doing so in a way that the process was profoundly validating and even life-changing for the subject.”

When the film opened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, “the response was phenomenal,” Ziering told me in a tone of disbelief. “People were outraged, people were talking about it, and I’d made other films before, but this time, the difference of the reception was something I’d never experienced and that I’ll probably never experience again.”

The film went on to win the Audience Award at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2013. More important, however, was the tangible emotional and political impact of the work on its viewers.

Ziering recounted a story of the time when she showed the film in Dayton, Ohio. As she was walking out to her car after the presentation, a woman drove up to her and told Ziering that she had driven three hours to thank her.

“She had seen ‘The Invisible War’ a few weeks earlier in Cleveland,” Ziering said. “And she said that for nineteen years she had blamed herself until then.”

In the months that followed, Ziering led a nationwide outreach campaign to spread awareness about the issue.
“We knew we had something powerful, so then it became my mission to deploy it,” she said.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ended up seeing the film, and two days later he held a press conference to announce significant policy changes in the military. President Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett invited Ziering to the White House after the film’s release. Jarrett and the President described the documentary as “brilliant” and decided that the administration needed to“exponentially step up their game on this issue,” Ziering said. Today, the film is used as training tool in many branches of the military, with many of the women and men featured in the film travelling to bases in order to talk about their experiences.

An Advocate of Social Justice

Ziering has always concerned herself with issues of social justice. Her interest in the topics presented in “The Invisible War” were only the tip of the iceberg for Ziering; since her time at Amherst, she had always been interested in the injustices occurring on campus and in the world.

“It was very the right place for me to be, given the interests that I had,” recalled Ziering, who studied English at Amherst. “I had extremely good mentors and teachers. I had really great fellow students from which to learn from. Intellectually, it gave me great foundation for everything I’ve done since.”

Studying under Professor Margie Waller of the English Department was a seminal experience for Ziering. Waller helped shape Ziering’s feminist views through film studies, focusing on the way the male gaze always frames female characters and on how narrative arcs demand closure.

“I was the person who walked out of ‘Star Wars’ so utterly disinterested, but Margie brought me back, and I thought about films in a very different way after her,” she said.

Ziering went on to extensively study feminist and literary theory.

“[Social injustice] is the source of my hunger for philosophy and literary theory and political theory,” Ziering said. “For me, it’s how you breathe. How could you not be a feminist? How could you be against equal rights? I don’t understand the other side. I don’t understand how you can occupy this world and not want to do something.”

Ellen Sachs-Alter, Ziering’s first-year floor mate and long time friend, says that Ziering was “extremely intelligent and funny” and “always had and has an interesting perspective on things.”

“She was in the world in a bigger way than most freshmen I knew,” Sachs-Alter said. “She was outspoken and articulate, but not in a brash sort of way. She wasn’t the ‘on-the-soapbox’ kind of outspoken. She was, instead, a very deliberate activist.”
Kirby Dick characterized Ziering as being “singularly unimpressed by authority and willing to take it on — and cut it down to size when it deserves it — in ways I’ve seen few others do.”

Ziering understands what boundaries to respect and what boundaries to cross. As for her interview subjects, their lives and emotional stabilities were her number one priority.

“We’re not exploitative or sensational,” Ziering said. “I’ve always said: First, do no harm.”

When she made her subjects feel safe and trusted, she said they opened up with “candor and courage.”

Life After Amherst

After Amherst, Ziering went on to study literary theory and philosophy at Yale. She studied with famed French philosopher Jacques Derrida, about whom she eventually made her first successful documentary, “Derrida.” The film includes footage of his lectures as well as scenes shot in his home, and investigates the potential impossibility of biography. In the film, Derrida applies his theory of deconstruction to the film itself, challenging the ability of film to accurately portray a subject.

“I was very struck by the quality and intimacy of the footage she was getting and her willingness to undertake such a complex project even though she had never made a film before,” said Dick, who met Ziering while she was filming “Derrida.” The film was a surprise success.

“When we started, I could not clear a room faster in L.A. when I told people I was making a film about a philosopher,” Ziering said. She received the Golden Gate Award at the 2002 San Francisco Film Festival for the work.

After completing the film, Ziering was a stay-at-home mom for a while. She also taught writing and film part-time at Bennington College and the University of California, Riverside before going back to the industry to try her hand at narrative film with “The Memory Thief,” a story about a man obsessed with documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Despite this effort, Ziering prefers documentaries.

“You never know where it’s going,” she said. “With narrative films, you read the script, and then you don’t even want to make the film anymore. But with documentary films, you never know.”

“Additionally, I’d rather take care of my interview subjects than actors,” Ziering continued. “So that was my only foray into narrative film.”

Ziering sees filmmaking as a vehicle to right social injustices. Documentary filmmaking has reached a golden age, she said, and now takes on the job of original-source investigative work that news sources such as CNN and MSNBC used to do and should be doing. She is critical of mainstream journalism, saying, “There’s this crazy notion nowadays that says there are two sides to everything and I’m like, no! Sometimes there is just one side.”

“There are empirical truths, and I’m happy to report on those,” she added.

Following Her Passion

Today, Ziering lives in Los Angeles with three daughters, ages 21, 17 and 13, whom she calls her “three little feminists.”

Ironically enough, you won’t find Ziering watching a movie on a Sunday afternoon.

“I like being with my kids, being with my friends. I like hiking, reading, listening to short stories,” Ziering said. “I’m a workaholic; I really like working. I like being with people. But I don’t like watching TV. I don’t like watching movies.”

“I am completely bored by narrative film. We’ve seen it all. Even the indie films are completely predictable. They’re trite tropes,” Ziering said with a wave of her hand. “If I never had to watch a piece of fiction again, that would suit me just fine.”

Sachs-Alter told me that she appreciates the opportunity to revisit the old days with Ziering.

“She didn’t understand the social climate of Amherst,” Sachs-Alter recounted. “Other people would love hanging out and shooting the breeze, and she never got that. She was socially stymied, and she laughs about it. She includes herself in her sense of humor. I can’t emphasize enough how funny she was.”

Ziering is always moving, always looking for the next story to report on, the next injustice to address. When I asked her about past projects, there are so many that she often gets the names and years confused.

“It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Menopause Mind,” Ziering joked.

“She would be the person walking around campus with papers falling out, with pencils in her hair, and thinking about things. She was a person who lived in her mind,” Sachs-Alter concluded. “And definitely not a nostalgic person.”

“My husband says I’m like a goldfish,” Ziering added. “I live in the present.”

Ziering’s latest project centers around campus sexual assault, making her work doubly relevant to Amherst College, given the recent controversies on campus surrounding this issue. While she was promoting “The Invisible War,” many students sent her messages, telling her that they loved the film and asking if she could make a film about sexual assault on college campuses.

The film will be distributed by RADiUS, a boutique label of the Weinstein Company, and CNN has already acquired the broadcast rights. Ziering said they are hoping that the film will premiere at Sundance in January 2015, and that the campus tour of the film will begin in February.

“I hope and wish that more students would go into this work. I know it’s hard and it’s not lucrative and it’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s so important, and it’s so undervalued,” she told me. “My advice … is to be curious. Be compassionate. Don’t let anything stop you.”