The Hunting Ground


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Hunting Ground
"Even if Dick took away the interviewees and voiceovers from this film, the statistics alone would make for startling reading."

Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering’s The Hunting Ground serves as a companion piece to their earlier documentary The Invisible War and zeroes in on the same crime: rape. The Invisible War exposed the disturbing frequency of rape (against both genders) within the US armed forces, the inbuilt dysfunction in the command structures and the culture that makes prosecutions undesirable to the powers that be. Among the culprits were a macho, heavy drinking culture, poor education at all levels, and commanding officers overly concerned for their reputations and poorly versed in sexual abuse cases, yet privileged by rank to serve as judge and jury against their own personnel. It was a power structure compromised from the start. Like fellow documentarian Alex Gibney, Dick is a filmmaker interested in power structures and how groups within that maintain their power.

The Hunting Ground takes a similar survivor-led narrative, intertwined with research stats, archive footage, re-enactments and expert testimony, and devastatingly dissects how a similar set of institutional failings – built on ignorance, bigotry and corporate concerns – result in the same enabling of rape and assault on America’s university campuses. It is a film worth showing to those who deny ‘rape culture’ is an issue or who think the term ‘epidemic’ is hyperbole. Even if Dick took away the interviewees and voiceovers from this film, the statistics alone would make for startling reading.

For example, fresh research revealed that over 16-20 per cent of female graduates who made it into the US campus system have claimed to have experienced sexual assault or rape. Ninety per cent of reported assaults are acquaintance rapes. A different series of stats, mocked up to look like university marketing material (one of the many digs the film takes at the universities’ slick promotional tools) showcase the absurdly low number of prosecutions in response to reports, with nearly half of all US colleges and universities reporting zero sexual assaults on their campuses. No one can seriously believe those figures represent the reality.

Dick isn't just talking about minor league institutions. The reputations of big names like Harvard, Dartmouth and Florida State are utterly demolished here when it comes to handling these crimes. Dozens of survivors who attended these hallowed halls (though not all were able to make it through to graduate, and at least one mentioned committed suicide) relate depressingly familiar stories of campus administrators and higher level officials who either ignored or ‘forgot’ their claims, suggested the victim was to blame ("How much were your drinking?", “Did you say no?”), and even blamed the survivor for putting the perpetrator’s academic career at risk. "Rape is like a football game…what would you do differently?” one student remembers being told. Some astonished students even saw false accusation proceedings being started against them, a truly upside-down scenario that beggars belief. Punishments were often minor, including the truly ridiculous “expulsion after graduation”. One former college police officer, who resigned in disgust, recalls an absurd restriction placed on his force that prevented them approaching one accused student because he was a football player, and his jurisdiction was not extended to the sports teams. The implication was that the college didn't want its run of successful games disrupted.

The college police officer’s testimony is one piece of evidence Dick uses to build a case that corporate and reputation concerns play a factor in these university’s reluctance to pursue perpetrators. As former tenured staff and other interviewees admit, college Deans have to be fundraisers as much as administrators these days, and college activities like sports can be big business with star players treated as treasured items (college sports stars then go on to be overrepresented in rape perpetration figures). Universities have big money tied up in sports stadiums and advertising deals. Alumni who make it big often make large donations to their alma mater and there is always the next generation of trust-fund kids to lure in for the next enrolment. Who wants to be known as the first major ‘rape campus’ when so much money is on the line? Testimony from former staff and other figures confirms that colleges feel under pressure to keep rape cases out of official police channels, as this risks these becoming federal stats, viewable to the public. They want to wash their own dirty laundry.

Dick effectively links up these corporate failings to the wider cultural problem of patriarchal, misogynistic behaviour and attitudes that young Americans are exposed to: a culture that is not only ineffectively policed by colleges, but even encouraged once they arrive on campus. This helps serial predators. It is dispiriting enough to see footage of crowds of drunk college kids screaming "No means yes, yes means anal", but Dick’s analysis of the US’s idiosyncratic and archaic “fraternity” system is even more disturbing. Here, it is implied, is an institutionalised culture of male-centred entitlement, where student houses are allowed such leeway in sexual behaviour that some have earned slang names to match their acronyms, with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity being universally referred to by cynical students as “Sexual Assault Expected”. These “frat” houses make good financial sense for the universities though, further complicating things. And who makes up a substantial number of Congress and Senate members, and large donors? Fraternity graduates. Thus we have a spider web of denial and failure where everything is connected.

Dick’s film identifies a glimmer of hope in the form of ground-up movements, spearheaded mainly by young student and graduate women who have survived assault and, with their institutions having ignored them, are starting their own campaigns for change. Dick frames his film around the shared journeys of two female students who were raped - Andrea Pino and Annie Clark - both from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, whose bravery, along with those of the other survivors both male and female, most of whom agreed to be named on screen as they share stories, is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Refusing victim status, they turn themselves into a potent mix of activists, bloggers and counsellors.

Andrea and Annie are focused on not just raising awareness through their grassroots organisation and creating a support network, but also examine the possibility of mounting a legal challenge to their University by involving the government under the Title IX article, which stipulates that the Federal department overseeing education can take severe action if a university is seen to be denying a student a fair education due to discrimination. It is a shame then that Dick underscores these more optimistic sections (and to be honest much of the rest of the film) with overly heavy, on-the-nose soundtrack choices that seem tonally off given the grim subject matter and just prove distracting.

Some more input, evasive to otherwise, from currently serving university staff would also maybe have added more insight. Nevertheless this activist documentary makes a persuasive case that, even if the wider cultural problem inherent in a patriarchy is a much wider and harder challenge to overcome (and beyond the scope of this film to dive into), colleges are failing to do their part even at the basic level.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2015
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Investigation of rape on US university campuses - and the institutional cover-ups.

Director: Kirby Dick

Writer: Kirby Dick

Starring: Diane Rosenfeld

Year: 2015

Runtime: 90 minutes

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