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January 28, 2013 at 6:00 AM

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Powerful documentaries urge action on health care crisis, military sex abuse

I just returned from a day trip to my hometown for the Olympia Film Society's 9th annual Documentary Film Festival at the historic Capitol Theater.

Two films in the festival's line-up have been on my radar for months: "The Waiting Room" and "The Invisible War." They screened back-to-back on Sunday afternoon.

Both films were filled with cringe-inducing moments, but I was greatly moved. Effective documentaries put a human face on timely issues that our society cannot ignore and has a responsibility to resolve.

"The Waiting Room" offers a stunningly intimate look into the complicated lives of the staff and patients of Highland Hospital, a public safety-net institution in Oakland, CA. "The Invisible War" sheds light on a horrendous epidemic of sex abuse in our nation's military.

I care about these topics because Washington's hospitals must deal with a similar influx of poor and largely uninsured individuals who forgo preventive care and end up in emergency rooms. Taxpayers must bear the cost of this lack of access to basic care. "The Waiting Room" takes us out of the ideological political war over "Obamacare" and into a real place where the mission is both complicated and simple: to get people healthy and back on their feet.

We also know that Washington is home to thousands of soldiers and veterans. I heard distinctive gasps throughout the audience as "The Invisible War" showed dismal statistics from government studies:

  • Since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military

  • More than 86% of service members do not report their assault

  • Less than five percent of all sexual assaults are put forward for prosecution, and less than a third of those cases result in imprisonment

After years of inaction by government and military officials, the Oscar-nominated film reportedly spurred Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to take investigative powers away from commanding officers who've displayed a pattern of dismissing these atrocities. However, the military still lacks a system of accountability and due process. How many good men and women are kept out of the service for fear of being abused? This is a question we must ask ourselves, especially as the military lifts its ban against women serving in combat.

I hope these films continue to reach a wider audience.

"The Waiting Room" is screening in Seattle in March at Landmark Theaters.

"The Invisible War" is screening throughout western Washington in the coming months. The film will also broadcast on PBS' Independent Lens series on May 25, but viewers can watch it now on Netflix. Take action by visiting the Invisible No More site.

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