Listening to the Abyss

The producer of The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground and The Bleeding Edge on what it takes to tell profoundly important stories.

When Kirby Dick and I first teamed up to work together in the late ’90s, we made a film on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Best known for having coined the term “deconstruction,” Derrida’s work interested me as it provided a profound and compelling ethical framework – a framework for living life responsibly.

I remember one lecture in which he explained that the word “responsibility” came from the French word “répondre, ”which means “to respond.” To be responsible is to listen carefully to the call or question of the Other, and answer accordingly.

For the past two decades, Kirby and I have been making films that have involved our listening to people’s stories and crafting attentive responses; responses that we, each time, hoped in some way did justice to their telling.

After Derrida came out and was something of a surprise hit, we elected to next collaborate on Outrage, a portrait of D.C. activists involved in the ethically complicated practice of outing closeted gay politicians who actively legislate against gay rights. But rather than just bear witness to these activists’ actions, Kirby and I implicated ourselves in the very moral quandary we were examining by ourselves actively outing a politician in our film. We felt at that time that the correct response to the stories the LGBTQI community had told us was our active participation and moral complicity. Responsibility is not a spectator sport.

For our most recent film, The Bleeding Edge, Kirby and I, along with our investigative producer Amy Herdy, traveled the country speaking with women and men who had been harmed by medical devices, that is, technologies deployed for diagnostic or curative purposes. Think: CT scans, contraceptive devices, hip implants, mesh, stents, defibrillators, robotic surgery devices, etc.

The stories we heard were quite varied – the bodily carnage from a hip implant differs greatly from the havoc wreaked by mesh — but all were univocally grim and surprisingly dark. We spoke with women who’d gone in for elective surgery and left hospitals barren and crippled for life. And men suffering from full-blown dementia resulting from cobalt leaching from their prosthetic hips. And children of these patients who were more familiar with emergency rooms than classrooms.

Having spent the last decade immersed in stories of sexual assault while making The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, we had thought, when we set out to make this new film, that these stories somehow couldn’t be as bad. Sadly they were as horrific and shattering; and, as with our earlier films, what compounded our outrage and heartbreak was the fact that the harm we witnessed was entirely preventable. It never had to happen.

Our comprehensive investigations into sexual assault in the military and on campuses uncovered the ways in which predators are systemically enabled and protected. Investigating the world of medical devices, we found ourselves dealing with an equally abject and sinister pathology: companies willing to knowingly inflict egregious harm for monetary gain.

For what we learned while investigating the half-trillion-dollar medical device industry is that the systematic rescinding of regulations by canny corporate lobbyists has left us all living in a world where devices implanted in our bodies are no longer rigorously vetted and tested; or, even more macabre, a world in which corporations are able to put products on the market, even if they know them to be defective, because the measures patients can take after having suffered irreparable harm, are meager at best.

We all are guinea pigs. We just don’t know it.

Often in Q&As we get asked what it’s like doing the kind of work we do. What effect does it have on our psyches?

While crafting The Invisible War, I chewed my fingers until they bled; with The Hunting Ground, sleeping pills became my new friends; and with The Bleeding Edge, I took to running several miles daily. The cardio does help, but there are times I still find myself sobbing inexplicably – or waking at 3 a.m., alert and fearful. I share these details not for sympathy, but to underline: if this is what I experience simply listening to so much needless sorrow, imagine what the persons themselves and their loved ones must be experiencing. Just imagine. Responsibility can exact a toll and require imagination.

The flip side of this is how grateful people are to speak with us, to share and be believed and know they are not alone.

Two years after The Hunting Ground’s release, we received a letter from one of the women we’d interviewed.

She said she imagined that we might not remember her, as she hadn’t ended up in the film, but she wanted us to know how much it meant to her to have been interviewed by us. To have been listened to with compassion and empathy in a safe space by strangers. She said she was writing to thank us and tell us her life had been transformed that afternoon. Transformed by a two-hour interview with strangers who listened.

I remembered this woman, just as I remembered another woman, around 60 years of age, who came last year to talk with us about her failed robotic surgery.

She had cancelled on us twice before, but now had finally appeared. Upon arrival, she was extremely agitated and explained that it was hard for her to talk about what had happened, as it was triggering and sad to think back on these acts that had, in effect, ruined her life.

We began the interview, but she wasn’t forthcoming and kept pausing, unable to complete her sentences. She said that although the surgery had been years ago, she still had nightmares daily, and that the ongoing physical pain and the psychic scars were still overwhelming. I asked her if we should just stop, explaining that we didn’t want to add to her burden in any way. She said no, she wanted to try and do this because she felt it was her responsibility to speak, if only to try and ensure that this never happened to one other person. Hearing her say this made me sad and seeing my face fall, she reached out and grabbed my hand. She, who had gone through so much, was now somehow trying to comfort me.

We are each other’s stories – we have a responsibility to share them if we can.

Even if it takes courage, even if it makes us sad. Maybe even especially when it does.

Thank you for listening.

Amy Ziering is a two-time Emmy Award–winning and Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, The Bleeding Edge, a Netflix original investigative feature on the medical industry, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and debuted on the streaming service July 27 to critical acclaim. Her previous film, The Hunting Ground, a piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on college campuses, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, was released by Radius and CNN, won the Producer’s Guild of America’s Stanley Kramer Award, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics, and was nominated for the Emmy for Exceptional Merit – Documentary Filmmaking. Her earlier film, The Invisible War, a groundbreaking investigation into the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military, won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, won two 2014 Emmy Awards for Best Documentary and Outstanding Investigative Journalism and was nominated for an Oscar. The film spurred Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to announce significant policy changes and catalyzed the passing of 35 pieces of reform legislation. She produced Outrage, an indictment of the hypocrisy of powerful, closeted politicians and the institutions that protect them, which received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, and also co-directed and produced Derrida, a documentary about the world-renowned French philosopher. For more, visit her official website.