Interview: HeadCount Board Member Nicole Boxer-Keegan

The HeadCount board of directors includes a member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the pioneers of the concert festival business, and owners of some historic music venues. Until recently though, we’d never had a producer of an Oscar-nominated movie!

That changed when Invisible War, a stirring film about rape in the military, was named a finalist for this year’s Best Documentary Academy Award. Nicole Boxer-Keegan is one of the film’s executive producers.

While the heavily favored “Searching for Sugar Man” took the honors at the Oscar’s last night, we were honored to sit down with Ms. Boxer a few weeks ago to talk about Invisible War and the very heavy topic it tackles.

HeadCount: How did you get involved with the film?

Boxer-Keegan: I was introduced to the filmmakers in late 2010. They’d come to Washington and were interested in finding out who’d they be able to interview on the Hill, and who might be in favor of new legislation. They had uncovered evidence that rape in the military in fact wasn’t just a small problem -- an epidemic proportion of men and women who had been assaulted. And then when [victims] reported it their cases were being dropped or they were being reprimanded by the chain of command, and they were fired and let go and they had charges against them. So the filmmakers needed some advice and help on how to navigate the Hill, and that is how I initially got involved -- just opening up some doors for them.

To give sort of a taste of this to the people who haven’t seen the film, is there a person or clips that stand out or people remember?

There are two stories that are incredible, but the one I would like to share is not the star but who has an incredible story and her name is Ariana, she was a combat soldier in Iraq. She did several tours. She was married and she came home and was recruited by the most elite Marines barracks in the world... the guys that you see at the White House. Ariana served there proudly. She had been recruited there. And while she was there was expected to go out drinking with the men and they made her do shots and all this stuff. And basically she was roofied while she was at work and she was raped by two of her commanding officers. I am so proud of her coming forward because she serves in the most elite Marine barracks in the world and she was willing to risk her career to tell her story. And her husband is also a soldier, and when the story came out he actually retired. He felt when the film came out he couldn’t be in. They are just such brave people and this girl was like an elite marine. When you have a woman like that it goes to show you have enlisted all the way up to officer that this is affecting and so I am impressed by her bravery. That was one of the things in the film that made news, that made the difference, that really put us over the top and really created policy changes. That’s the one story I’ll draw your attention to. And I hope that all the HeadCount kids and the volunteers and HeadCount community really come out and support our men and women in uniform because we are not trying to say the military is bad in any way. We want to make it a better place.

And tell the reader about your background and other film projects and what you brought you to your executive producer role here:

I went to NYU Film School and like a lot of people weren’t sure which way my career would go, and in fact when I got out of school. My very first job was at Lucasfilms, in San Rafael in Marin County, California. And I was lucky enough to work on some big feature films and really fell in love with the people and the business. And it was definitely fun! You know I started at a young age working as a production assistant, and you know life moves on, I started having a family and when I decided to get back into the business I lived in Washington, D.C. and thought wow! There is a documentary community here. What might that be like? As I began to look into it and become interested in what was going on in the world and to start to tell some of these stories, I fell in love with documentary. I’ve begun to recognize that arts and politics can do this dance together and really put a face to issues that people really care about just like Invisible War. And it just might be enough to make a difference. I still love feature films. I love the movies. I’ve ALWAYS dreamed of going to the Oscars; it has always been a dream of mine.

When you think of documentaries, you think of  them uncovering something and the world is kind of never the same again. It must be really exciting to work on a project where that comes together in such a pure form.

It is. I think Kirby Dick, who directed the Invisible War is a true master in the style of documentaries in which he uses. He is an entertainer but he mixes in this passionate curiosity of an investigator. And once he gets a subject he becomes the chief investigator of this subject. He is relentless in trying to discover and uncover the truth. Even for his own curiosity, and I think that what makes documentaries so interesting is it connects with that film maker in his process and when it's done it just works correctly. It can then connect to everyone.

So it’s just this beautiful combination of art meeting facts meeting story meeting investigation and what we have with a feature documentary is this art form that really doesn’t exist with short form docs, or news docs. You really get the opportunity to use music, and pacing, scenery and graphics, and all of these elements come together to really create this feature documentary experience.

Has the film had any direct impact on policy?

Yes. For example in the Defense Authorization act of 2012,  you no longer can join the military if you were convicted of sexual assault or rape - in your past you could, shockingly. The only waiver there really was for people who had committed a murder. But you know not to be to nepotistic but the bill had been written by my mother [Senator] Barbara Boxer [D-CA] and it is called the “Boxer Amendment”. The bill had been floating around for years and she couldn’t get it passed that rapists shouldn’t be allowed to serve and she credits the film for really telling the stories of these women. And there are thousands of stories of woman who have been raped in the military. And that’s like a huge change right there. And the Military has come out and said look… at the highest levels of the land this is not who we want to be anymore as an institution. So that’s pretty powerful.

I’m sure the movie has touched a lot of people personally too. I’m sure there are stories of women who felt they were alone and after this comes out feel like there is a community and someone cares. Do you hear a lot about that kind of thing?

Absolutely! You know the thing about rape -- and not just in the military -- is that victims of sexual assault and rape often feel a stigma against them. They are often in the shadow or they don’t want to come forward because they will be ridiculed or they’ve been threatened and that’s got to change in our culture. We all know about the priest scandals that have happened, that have come out recently, we know about what happened at Penn State. And I think this is very similar. The movie has allowed other survivors to come forward and feel like they are a part of the sisterhood and brotherhood, because rape affects both men and women. We can’t dismiss or underplay how important it is to have that safety net, that security that people care and there are other people like me and it’s ok to come out.

How is music incorporated in this film?

The music is sort of heart wrenching . You know, Imagine the Military and what do you think of? You think of drums beats, of that snare drum. And I think that the film did an extraordinary job of sort of touching on our patriotism and reminding us that in fact that drum beat is the drum beat of America. It takes this patriotism and kind of goes to a dark place and asks you -- through the music  -- it asks you “Is this what America is all about?”

I know it is really difficult for documentaries to make money, even the Academy Award nominated ones. What is the business model behind something like this? Can it make money?

You know I wish I could say yes, but in this particular case everyone knew going in we were not going to make money. It is very difficult to get people to go to the theater and see a film about rape. We knew that going in. The brilliant team behind it was very smart in getting an early television partnership and we partnered with PBS which produces “Independent Lens.” So very early on we knew that it was going to be a television vehicle and that it had a theatrical component so in this particular case this was not a film to make money, in fact it was driven by the desire to make change. Thank goodness there are sort of endowers and funders out there who continue to support documentary filmmaking despite this fact. I think the whole film business is changing as is the music business. I’m not a business person but I do know there are donors, funders and philanthropists out there who believe in investigative journalism and feature documentary as a way to donate their funds.

So what next for you what else is keeping you busy these days?

I am directing my first feature documentary called “Live Stories” and it’s a story about how theater and telling your story has the ability to heal you. To heal your life and in this case it’s a story about 15 women who are in addiction recovery here in Washington, D.C. They take a journey to the Kennedy Center stage, a very unlikely place for them. Stories that interest me are about women, empowering people who are the under dogs, and really exploring myself as an artist and I am discovering what it takes to direct it is very, very difficult. I hope that my film will entertain people and I look forward to finishing it.