'The Hunting Ground'
Issue-based documentaries can often be annoying works of righteous indignation and preaching rather than actual films. It’s rare that an issue doc could be described with a word like “cinematic,” and certainly Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s movie ‘The Hunting Ground’ is no exception to that rule. However, when the subject matter is this searing and important, such piddling complaints feel irrelevant.
The last time Dick and Zeiring collaborated on a documentary, ‘The Invisible War’, they exposed the systematic dismissal of rape within the U.S. military. Now, they’ve done the same for the nationwide hushing of sexual assault on college campuses. Even though there’s nothing enjoyable about watching their new doc, everyone who has attended college, has children considering college, or has even heard of the word “college” really needs to see this ugly slice of truth.
The film isn’t subtle, but to be fair, it probably shouldn’t be. In an act of acidic irony, the movie opens with a montage of young girls cheering ecstatically about receiving their college acceptance letters while the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march plays behind them. It’s an image we know all too well and have in many cases experienced ourselves. And yet, the doc is quick to point out that those girls who are so thrilled to be heading off to college have a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Even worse, if they’re in the small percentage of women who work up the courage to approach their institutions for support, they will be discouraged from ever reporting the crime, and chances are that their perpetrators will never face expulsion, even if they’re repeat offenders. It’s horrendous but sadly true.
From there, Dick and Ziering get more specific, profiling girl after girl and crime after crime without any sign of punishment or retribution. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons. The big one is reputation. If parents had any idea what sorts of things were happening to young women on college campuses, they likely wouldn’t send their children there. Past alumni would be far less likely to donate to the schools. Controversy would place a black mark on any university through the media coverage. It would be a headache for the institution, and so it’s easier to just pretend nothing ever happened.
Former security officers and student counselors discuss how they were trained to actively discourage women from reporting these crimes and encourage them to place the blame on themselves. Horror stories emerge about rapes that were dismissed as invalid even with signed confessions by the perpetrators. Even if the assaults are considered legitimate, the punishment is typically little more than a brief suspension. It’s easier to get expelled from a university for cheating on an exam than it is for being a serial rapist.
Of all the chilling information revealed by the filmmakers over the course of ‘The Hunting Ground’, the most unsettling might be the blind eye turned to fraternities and college sports stars. The film offers chilling depictions of frat houses at major institutions that are renowned for sexual assault on campus, openly hold parties with spiked booze, and feature shrines to “conquered” women in their basements. Yet this is ignored by the university because fraternities offer cheap housing that they don’t have to worry about, and frat brothers donate more money to their colleges after graduation than any other social group.
College athletes get a similar free pass because they generate millions of dollars for their universities every year. One campus police officer discusses how there are regulations in place limiting when and how athletes can even be approached to discuss accusations, and they’re never prosecuted. Horrifyingly, the doc raps up with a tale of a young girl who was raped by Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston. Despite having definitive DNA proof that the crime took place, the charges were mocked by the media, and the local prosecutor (not coincidentally a Florida State grad) dismissed the case outright. A second rape charge against Winston from another young woman followed that year and was also dismissed. Don’t worry though, Florida won the championship, Winston won the Heisman Trophy, and he’s slated to be the #1 pick in the NFL draft this year. The girl? She was harassed so severely that she dropped out of school and continues to be harassed online to this day. That’s what you get for reporting a crime against a guilty superstar college athlete.
Yes, ‘The Hunting Ground’ is a deeply disturbing and sobering movie. It has a small through-line of hope in the form of two former victims who form a coalition and travel campuses around the country to raise awareness and give voice to the silenced. Positive work is being done. Unfortunately, it’s independent of the institutions and the facts remain hidden from the eyes of the mainstream media and the public.
The inherent shock and hopelessness of Dick and Ziering’s doc makes for a tough watch, and the filmmakers can be accused of reveling in the misery. Their movie pushes buttons so hard that the audience will get exhausted. It also never rises above talking-heads reporting to feel like a movie, nor does it have much of a dramatic arc to give viewers a structure with which to consume the facts. As a work of documentary filmmaking, it’s a pretty average work technically, and a little annoyingly manipulative in execution. However, as a work of investigative journalism into a tragically ignored issue, ‘The Hunting Ground’ is a vital piece of work. Any complaints are minor and should in no way impede viewers from seeking out this terrifying truth that will hopefully reach as wide an audience as possible. You may not want to hear and see everything in ‘The Hunting Ground’, but that’s irrelevant. You need to know. Everyone does.