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Silences Broken, Secrets Revealed At Kansas International Film Festival

Good documentaries are like prize-winning journalism in their ability to wage war on toxic secrets.

Such is the case with the best of the films showing at this year's Kansas International Film Festival, October 5-11 at the Glenwood Arts Theatre.

Kirby Dick's infuriating documentary The Invisible War examines the callous treatment sexual assault victims - both women and men - receive while serving in the United States military. It is estimated that 20% of active duty women are sexually assaulted, yet 80% of them don't report it. The reasons are many but one of them reveals a cruel truth: that a quarter of those that don't report it say it's because the person they would have reported to was their rapist.

Several of the victims tell their stories with devastating clarity about why the crimes stay shrouded and the criminals untouched. In one of the most heinous cases, Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca's medical claims for a shattered jaw sustained during the rape are challenged while her rapist walks free. There are many more chilling scenarios, and while the details differ, what many of the victims affirm is that "rape is an occupational hazard of military service."

Filmmaker Steve Lickeig, also senior producer of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered, unearths secrets within his own family in Open Secret that force him to reevaluate his kindly but awkward parents and his oldest sister, who a few decades prior,  conspired in a family plot only select relatives were let in on. Another family is torn to choose sides in Unfit: Ward Vs. Ward. where a child custody battle pits a lesbian mother and her partner against their daughter's biological father, who served prison time for murder. That anyone could debate the pros and cons of sexual orientation versus someone who committed a homicide seems baffling, but there are those two camps.

Corporate malfeasance is at the heart of Higher Power about how America's aging electrical power grid is chipping away at family farms by killing or maiming their livestock  due to what's benignly termed "stray voltage." Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's hometown is profiled in a timely manner in As Goes Janesville, where the business leaders of a quaint but struggling Wisconsin town have a plan to save the city at the expense of the local unions and middle class. And in the French documentary The Job, the audience is given a unique peek into an insurance company's grueling, competitive interview process for low-paying but highly desired sales positions.

Though it's often hard to look at, The Eyes of Thailand is an inspiring story of one woman's all-consuming quest to design and fit prosthetic legs on elephants whose feet are ripped to shreds by land mines. It's a story of perseverance that is contrasted in Between Two Rivers,  a portrait of Cairo, Illinois, a town at the crux of the Missouri and the Mississippi so placed because its founders logically believed it would become a major metropolis. That dream in what was called "The Gateway to the South" is bitterly crushed by racial conflicts.

Low-budget narrative films can vary more in quality than documentaries because those dollars can't always be spent on actors good enough to sell the story. The films that beat those odds include Small Creatures, a look at lost youth in an economically distressed Edinburgh, Scotland; Dead Man's Burden, a female-centered western about family land, lies, and betrayals; Voice Over, a dense psychological thriller about a Bulgarian filmmaker thought to be a spy; and Petunia, a breezy comedy starring Christine Lahti as the frazzled matriarch of a family breaking into identifiable pieces.

The Kansas International Film Festival, October 5-11, 2012, Glenwood Arts Theatre, 9575 Metcalf, Overland Park, KS. For a full schedule of films and screening times, or to view select trailers, visit their website or call 913-642-4404.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.