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Review: ‘The Hunting Ground’ give campus sexual assault harrowing Kirby Dick treatment

01.24.15 2 years ago

AP

PARK CITY. Documentarian Kirby Dick has done oddball character studies, intellectual biographies and targeted the motion picture ratings system. But if 25 or 50 years from now Dick is most remembered for scathing polemics exposing epidemics of sexual assaults in America's most powerful institutions, well that would be a pretty honorable thing upon which to hang one's hat. 

Targeting the Catholic Church (“Twist of Faith”) and the military (“The Invisible War”), Kirby Dick has proven himself a master of visceral polemics that inspire outrage and culminate in aggressive calls to bear witness and take action.

But Dick's approach to institutional sexual abuse isn't just to shine light on a subject and give exposure to victims. 

When “The Invisible War” premiered at Sundance in 2012, I wrote, “'The Invisible War' may depress you and make you cry, but it'll also probably leave you inspired. It's a portrait of courage as much as victimhood.”

The same is true of Dick's newest institutional condemnation, “The Hunting Ground,” in which the filmmaker will surely reduce you to tears with all of the first-person accounts of rape and sexual violence, but it's the heroism in candor and openness that Dick wants to leave you with. Many of the young women here aren't just risking reputation and privacy to tell their stories, they're also leading fights for report on both micro and macro levels. They're turning what is probably the lowest moment of their lives into an act of bravery that could impact thousands or millions of lives.

[Before going forward, it should be acknowledged: Kirby Dick is the credited director on “The Hunting Ground,” as he also was on “The Invisible War” and more. I'm beginning to suspect that, especially within this institutional sexual assault series, we're short-changing producer Amy Ziering when it comes to giving credit. But Ziering and Dick share the “Film By” credit at the start of the movie and when interviews with the female coeds are being conducted, it's Ziering who we hear asking questions and offering sympathy or encouragement. Dick is still the credited director and so I give him authorial credit for what is said here. But in most cases, I think you can assume that references to “Dick” mean “Dick and Ziering.”]

“The Hunting Ground” — it's an absolutely chilling title — begins, as Dick likes to do, with the preemptory gut-punch of jubilant YouTube videos of young women getting their college acceptances. The videos are all optimism and unguarded joy, a soul-wrenching preamble to the statistic that between 16 and 20 percent of women will be sexually assaulted at college, a statistic that becomes all the more painful when we're told how many sexual assaults on campus go unreported and then how few sexual assaults are followed by punishments that seem in any way proportionate. 

No matter what section of the newspaper you happen to read, sexual assault on college campuses has been getting more coverage of late.

Of course, some of that coverage has stemmed from the Rolling Stone UVA story, a piece of apparent journalistic malfeasance made infinitely more damaging because of the ammunition it will provide for doubters, insidious skeptics who talk about the dangers of false reports and victim anonymity. 

“The Hunting Ground” does not go anywhere near the UVA/RS story, but it still stands as a guardian against the naysayers. Of principle importance, it notes that false reports of rape are, in fact, no more common than false reports of any crime, suggesting the percentage of those false reports is, at the most, only as high as 8 percent and is more likely under 5 percent. 

And the women in “The Hunting Ground” aren't protecting their identities at all. They're given full names, their colleges are identified and, one after another, they stare into the camera and tell their stories. The interviews are well-lit, never pushing people into shadows. They hail from colleges in all parts of the country, colleges of all sizes and academic reputations, from Ivy Leagers Harvard and Yale to religiously affiliated schools like Notre Dame and Occidental to more traditional “party schools” like USC or Arizona State. There's no way you can walk away from “The Hunting Ground” thinking, “This kind of thing doesn't happen at schools like my alma mater.” 

Many of the women knew their assailants, but some did not. Some of the women were quick to report their assaults, but others waited or haven't told their stories until now. Some of the women were at parties or bars, but others were just in dorm rooms, ofter their own. Some were drugged, others were not. Some recount their memories in graphic, emotional monologues, trying to purge the experience, but others skip details and just stick to the basics. There is no one way that campus rapes happen, no one way that women respond to the aftermath of being assaulted, no one way that women bounce back, or don't. Some of the women stayed in school and were forced to see their attackers every day. Others left their schools, chased away by the trauma or sometimes by worse.

One thing, sadly, is consistent: “The Hunting Ground” does not feature a single women who tells her story and then says, “From there, the reporting procedure made it easy for me to make a prove my case and then the university responded in a way that made me and other women like me feel safe.” Not one. There are stories of doubting deans and administrators and counselors asking what they did to cause the rape, urging them not to get police involved. There are stories of ineffective disciplinary boards and ethics panels either failing to find enough evidence for punishment or levying a punishment as absurd as a $25 fine or a one-month suspension during summer break. There are stories of attackers getting off and then doing it again, because “The Hunting Ground” is quick to note that most men, the vast majority of men, don't rape or assault women, but that those who do are statistically more likely to do it again.

[Footnote: There are male victims of sexual assault in “The Hunting Ground.” I think Dick and company wanted to make sure that those voices were acknowledged, but the men in the documentary are much less candid and, as we're told, the number of sexual assaults on men that are reported is miniscule. There's probably a whole other documentary to be made on this side of things, but the social taboo in discussing it is seemingly far greater at the moment.]

Between the statistics and testimony — plus the introduction of the doc's core characters, former UNC students Annie and Andrea, who have begun the noble process of mobilizing women and taking legal action against many schools on Title IX grounds — it takes a while before Dick begins to point fingers at not-unpredictable culprits within the college framework. It's no surprise that this critics of institutional powers has a distrust of the most powerful institutions within the institutions. The fraternity system is cast in a harsh light, albeit with the caveat than not all frats have problems with sexual assault. And, frankly, frats are left looking far better than the sports departments, where scholarship athletes make up a small percentage of ever student body, but are responsible for a disproportionate number of assault claims, but often have the backing of many of the school's structures because of their centrality to school branding money-making.

I mentioned above that the Rolling Stone/UVA scandal isn't a part of the “Hunting Ground” narrative, but another major public sexual assault scandal makes up the most infuriating part of the film's last act. For the most part,  the alleged and even convicted perpetrators of sexual violence aren't named here. I'm sure there's a liability issue, but I think there's also an issue of empowerment. 

Well, one alleged sexual assaulter whose name has been front-and-center in the media and who also is very aggressively named here is former Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

Erica Kinsman, the former Florida State student who accused Winston of sexual assault in a 2012 incident, tells her story in great detail and because the story has entirely public — and Kinsman's name has been public, allowing for the most disgusting of slurs to be directed against her on social media and elsewhere — both Winson and Scott Angula, the officer and FSU alum Kinsman believes marginalized her case, are called out. Winston and Angula naturally say nothing in “The Hunting Ground,” but State Attorney Willie Meggs appears in the documentary to justify his decision not to file charges against Winston, even though Meggs admits that in his own opinion, “things that happened that night were not good.” Winston isn't going to go to jail for what he did and if people want to believe him, they certainly can. The fact is that he's still going to be a Top 10 NFL draft pick despite this case and his other questionable off-field activities. Kinsman, meanwhile… Well, just look at the comments on any media report naming her and ask yourself what she benefits from allowing herself to be called the nasty assortment of slurs she's faced. There is no circumstance under which Erica Kinsman is the person with power in this circumstance, the person with the platform. Even seeing her and hearing her in this documentary will never get her close to the exposure Jameis Winston gets as a sports hero on ESPN, the support he gets from cowardly ESPN personalities like Skip Bayless.

I gave “Invisible War” an A- grade and I'm currently going with a B+ for “The Hunting Ground” because I think the filmmakers need an actual acknowledgement of what is a fairly one-sided piece of storytelling. I'm not saying something stupid like, “Campus rape is an issue that should be treated in a fair and balanced manner.” To hell with that. But there's a tokenism to the voices “from the other side.” There's one former fraternity member who somehow speaks to all sexual impropriety on behalf of the entire Greek system. There's one former cop who does the same on behalf of law enforcement and one blurred sexual predator. Former Syracuse star QB Don McPherson is the voice for anybody ever associated with college athletics. The handful of administrators in the documentary are all actually former administrators. 

The documentary shows how several college officials and professors who dared to advocate for transparency in the treatment of sexual assault were fired. I get the risk. But if deans and college presidents from Harvard to Michigan to Notre Dame to UNC are being pilloried for their apathy, negligence or worse, I think it's necessary for the documentary to explicitly say that these people were contacted and offered the opportunity to speak and chose not to, because I assume that was the case in all instances. I assume the Florida State Athletic Department was contacted and wanted no part in offering up Jimbo Fisher or Jameis Winston for a potentially brutal interview. That just has to be said somewhere, at least in my opinion. I think “The Hunting Ground” is one-sided because of concerns of brand and liability and general cowardice from people who didn't want to go on-record as saying there's no problem here, there's no mishandling here. That practically demands a screen or two listing the people who didn't want to talk. 

[UPDATE: A commenter says that this list that I wanted is in the closing credits. I really did stay through the credits waiting to see if something like that would be there, but between people coming and going around me, I apparently missed that list. I still think it needs to be there pre-credits. It's not an afterthought to the story.]

And of course there's a problem here. Anybody who thinks there isn't is ridiculous. I do think there's room to discuss the nature of the problem and the fingers we point. Are athletic directors and football coaches at major universities too powerful because of their salaries and the amount of money they can bring in? Yes. That's the case whether you want to talk about Jameis Winston or the three Oregon basketball players suspended last year or whether you want to talk about cheating scandals or countless other black clouds of different shapes and sizes. Are fraternities also too often left unaccountable for many of the same financial reasons? It sees likely. But more than anything, “The Hunting Ground,” like “Invisible War” before it, doesn't point its ultimate finger at small fish or medium-sized fish. Dick and Ziering want a single university president to admit to a problem and commit to taking on that problem, while they're also aware that no university president is ever going to want their school to become The Rape Campus. 

So until that happens, it's important for Annie and Andrea, for Erin Kinsman and all of the other victims/witnesses/voices to be out there in “The Hunting Ground,” for them to generate awareness and concern and outrage, because who's going to be the person to come out and say that 16 to 20 percent of women being sexually assaulted on college campuses is acceptable? The solution isn't to do away with sports programs or fraternities, but to acknowledge a system problem and confront it. 

This is yet another powerful step from Kirby Dick.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

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