Filmmaker Kirby Dick Discusses The College Rape Epidemic And His Exposé ‘The Hunting Ground’

The Hunting Ground presents some startling firsthand accounts from college students about their experience of being raped by fellow students on campus. But equally disheartening are the victim’s stories of how their university responded to their assault—by doing nothing. In the documentary from filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who previously exposed rape in the military in their Oscar nominated film The Invisible War, the two set out to examine and expose the epidemic of rape on college campuses and the neglect of universities to help their students who have been victims of rape and sexual assault. The filmmakers interview numerous women and men from universities around the country about their experience, revealing that the problem is not an isolated incident on one problematic campus, but happens even at universities that pride themselves on being advocates of social justice.

I interviewed Kirby Dick about making The Hunting Ground (which was recently shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination), the response the film has garnered since its release, and what people can do to feel hopeful about the safety of college students.

What’s amazing is that rape on college campuses has been a problem for decades. Why do you think it’s taken so long for people to care and take the issue seriously?

That’s a very, very good question. I think part of the issue here is that the college and universities have not taken this on, they’ve not been proactive about this. They’ve responded in defensive ways, they’ve responded in a way that often is blaming the victim. Their first goal was to protect the reputation of their institution and to protect their funding and they put those goals over protecting their students. That’s been happening for a long long time, unfortunately. We are starting to see a little change thanks in large part to the student survivors and activists around the country. You certainly saw that in the film. It’s incredible what these young men and women have done over the last couple of years to bring this to the top of the national agenda and really start some motion in a movement in college and universities. But I think it’s hard, when we think of colleges and universities there are so many positive things about these institutions and it’s hard to imagine that they would not put their student’s interest first when it came to sexual assault.

At what point did you realize you wanted to investigate this issue further? And at that point did you know the scale of the problem?

We were aware that it was a problem, my producer Amy Ziering and I, and we had actually made a previous film about sexual assault in the military. We were taking that film around to college campuses and what we started seeing in the Q&As that followed the screening of the film is that the discussion would change from rape in the military to rape on college campuses. And people were saying, “It happens here, the administration isn’t doing anything about it.” We kept hearing that again and again, then we started getting emails from people saying, “I was assaulted, please make a film about it.” We never actually experienced that kind of appeal from the public to make a film. We knew we could make a good film and felt it had to be made. Once we got into it we were very astonished at how ubiquitous the problem was. It seemed like school after school after school this was a problem. Maybe it’s less of a surprise if it’s a school with a huge football program but we saw it was just as bad, in some cases worse, at institutions like Berkeley for example. That’s what I found most shocking, how ubiquitous the problem was.

Right, so the institutions that have a reputation where you would least expect this to happen, it is very much a problem there as well.

Exactly. And what’s surprising too is that these institutions have done so much for human rights around the world and other issues. But when it comes to really a human rights issue on their own campus, the right to not be sexually assaulted and be protected, they have run the opposite direction. That was shocking.

It seems that whenever rape on college campus is covered that it generates a response where it is twisted and focused more on the legitimacy of how these stories are reported, the degree of accuracy, so much so that the discussion becomes less about the actual issue. I’m wondering what you make of how people have responded to the film, or do you read a lot of the essays and critiques of your documentary?

Overwhelmingly the responses have been very, very positive. Even from a vast majority of colleges and universities. There have been nearly a thousand screenings of this film on college campuses. Every time it screens on a campus it promotes discussion, survivors come forward, and this is what we want to have happen. In many ways this has to be solved on a school by school basis and the film is really helping in that process. But there are some schools unfortunately, Florida State of course is one, that have responded by really attacking the messenger. There’s no question there’s a problem at Florida State. There’s an article that came out just last week that shows how extensive the problem still was even in 2014. And even now the president of Florida State is issuing statements denying that it’s a real problem, claiming that they’ve been exemplary in how they’ve handled this for years, criticizing the film for its coverage of one story. The film is completely accurate, no institution has asked for the retraction of any fact there in the film. What you’re seeing here with a few schools is they’re reacting to the film, in a certain way how they reacted to survivors and student activists when they first came forward, was to first to blame them, to try to discredit them. But the facts are the facts. And I think most schools are at least starting to address the problem and not denying that they have one.

So colleges featured in the documentary are not shying away from showing the film?

I think there’s many different kinds of people who invite the film to a school. Sometimes it’s students and that’s not surprising. They know it’s a problem. Sometimes it’s faculty. Unfortunately all schools haven’t shown it on their campus, obviously FSU is one but there’s another school we focus on and it’s very surprising that they haven’t shown this and that’s Berkeley. As far as I know they have not shown it on their campus yet. I just want to stress that this is not just a sports problem. You can be a school that’s associated with social justice, that’s considered politically liberal, those institutions also in many cases react to protect their reputation. I have to say I’m really saddened that Berkeley has not yet shown the film on their campus.

I’m curious what you make of previous exposés on this issue. The one I’m thinking of in particular is the UVA rape case and how it was covered in Rolling Stone.

You bring up a very good case. Certainly there was a problem with the reporting there, there’s no question about that. Not only is it appropriate but it is beneficial to our country that that kind of poor reporting be exposed, no question about it. But the reality is that was one story on one campus and we know that this is happening more than a hundred thousand times or more each year on all campuses around the country. So it’s really important to keep perspective on this issue. And I think that by focusing extensively on that one story, like you said, it does take the focus away from the much more important issue of the fact that this is happening across the country. I actually think the film played a very important role in re-directing that conversation. Because the UVA story came out in October [2014] and the problem with the story I think was revealed in November. But I think there was a whole kind of movement in the country towards this concept that women lie, that the statistics are overblown. And I think [The Hunting Ground] has really played a major role in re-directing that conversation. And so were grateful that people have responded to the film this way and we’re happy that this film is playing a role in keeping the focus on the real problem.

The main subjects of the film have done and continue to do so much work to bring awareness to the problem and have something done about it. When you completed the documentary did you feel a sense of hope? And what can you suggest to others to feel more hopeful about the situation?

I think there’s hope. I think certainly when you see what the student survivors and activists have accomplished it’s very hopeful. When we made this film about rape in the military there wasn’t that kind of movement coming from survivors and activists. Fortunately the defense department reacted in really the right way and started screening Invisible War in places around the country, around the world even. But I think there’s hope because of these activists and there’s continuing activism from these young women and men. I think there’s hope that it’s screening on college campuses. I know that there’s no question that two or three years ago, I don’t think this was really a major discussion point at most colleges and Universities. That has changed. People are talking about it now, schools are starting to have campus climate surveys. The Obama administration and Vice President Biden have been very strong and forceful on this with the position that they’ve taken about speaking out about sexual assault. This is a moment where real change can happen but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take the public and schools and really every alumni, everyone, and continuing to push these institutions. Without pressure no institution would change. It’s really on all of us to keep the pressure on these schools and hopefully we’ll look back 20 years from now and we’ll say, that was a point where this country really pulled together and addressed this really important issue. Hopefully I won’t have to make a sequel on this in 20 years.

It is true that even five years ago this issue wasn’t being covered the way it is now. And when I was in high school it wasn’t discussed, or I don’t recall there being much attention on it. For high schoolers watching this, what has been their reaction? And do you think this will help them to watch this documentary before they go to college?

I think it’s absolutely important. It’s power. Part of the vulnerability of students, especially freshmen, is that they aren’t aware of this stuff. By the time somebody’s been on a campus six months to a year they’re very aware of which parties might be dangerous and what kind of situations might be dangerous. But I think when many students are first coming to college there’s a sense of idealism, of hope, of trust. For the most part the schools, that’s all really appropriate. But there are dangerous places, dangerous situations that they are not aware about and they’re unaware of and that makes them especially vulnerable, so it’s important that they see this film.

It’s also important that people understand this is an issue and that when a survivor comes forward and says they’ve been assaulted that they should be supported and they should be believed because a vast majority of times they’re telling the truth. I think that will help shift the climate on campuses if survivors come forward. The more survivors who come forward the more people who are proponents hopefully will be kicked off campus and the safer that campus will become. One of the things that’s interesting is that we obviously, from the beginning, had the intention to screen this film on college campuses. We had planned to begin the campaign to screen at high schools this past September. But there was such demand for this film, even in March shortly after the theatrical release, from high school students, parents, and administrators that I think we’ve already screened it at several dozen schools and that was never planned. People were coming to us, “Please, screen the film. Our students need to see this. The parents of our students need to see it.” So there’s a real interest there and sexual assault happens in high school. And then the whole concept of consent and education around consent is something that not only should happen in high school but even more appropriately should begin in elementary school. I think that would be an important step in addressing sexual assault throughout our society.

It’s interesting too, like you say in the film, it is often a repeat perpetrator. And we don’t hear a lot from them. Who are they? Why are they doing this?

That’s almost an entire film in itself, what is the motivation of somebody who is a repeat sexual offender? But obviously it’s not about sex, it’s about power. In many cases, the men particularly in college are very entitled, very successful, very popular and could have consensual sex if they wanted to. But they chose to have non-consensual sex. So again, it’s about power and not about sex. But you’re right, studies have shown not only in colleges but in the military and society as a whole that most sexual assaults are caused by repeat offenders. So that’s why it’s so important when a survivor comes forward there’s a support, because there’s a very good chance that the person that assaulted the survivor is a repeat offender who, if they’re not responsible, may very likely go out and assault again.

Since you covered rape in the military and on college campuses, do you find yourself more sensitive to seeing rape portrayed in film?

I would say yes, although I was always sensitive to misogyny if it’s exploited. Obviously artists are free to and should be free to investigate every aspect of human behavior. But I think it’s fair to say that in many mainstream films and television often times it’s done in an exploitive way. And yes, I’ve always been sensitive to that and I’m even more sensitive now. And I don’t think the problem is because of the media’s presentation of this, I think culturally there is a misogyny that you see throughout all aspects of culture and the media certainly. I think hopefully films like the Invisible War and the Hunting Ground and the other media coverage on this issue will cause writers and directors of dramatic films to present things around rape differently. And I think you’re starting to see that. I really do, I know for example in House of Cards there was a whole thread that went over five or six episodes that was inspired by seeing The Invisible War. And we know that there are other stories now coming out in television programs that the writers have seen The Hunting Ground and were influenced by that, presenting issues around sexual assault on college campuses in a way differently than they had been in the past. Again, I think the discussion is shifting some. It’s a moment but we still have so much farther to go.


The Hunting Ground is now available via on-demand services, DVD, and Blu-ray.