One of the many stark statistics in Kirby Dick’s last documentary, 2012’s The Invisible War, revealed that 20% of women who serve in the military report being sexually assaulted while enlisted. Devastatingly, the same proportion of women are abused on America’s college campuses. Glossy but dogged, the filmmaker’s new film, The Hunting Ground, is an unsettling primer on the campus-rape epidemic, armed with a battery of statistics and testimonials demonstrating how university systems fail to address the severity of the problem. Dick’s films don’t go far enough in explaining how a culture of rape can pervade in vastly different institutions, but they’re ruthless about holding them accountable.
The Hunting Ground follows the template of its predecessor precisely. Dick and producer Amy Ziering interview experts on sexual abuse and dozens of survivors, who discuss their reluctance to go public and their disquietingly similar experiences with campus police and administrators. They’re asked what they were wearing and how much they’d been drinking before the assault, and how they’d behave differently in future social excursions. When the investigations aren’t rampant with victim blaming, they remain halfhearted: the vast majority of assailants go unpunished; the few that are face paltry sentences (community service, small financial penalties). Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two University of North Carolina survivors incited by this state of bureaucratic entropy and condescension, use a novel but noble interpretation of Title IX (the federal law preventing gender discrimination in higher education) in order to sue their alma mater. They become the film’s protagonists, creating a network of survivors equipped to take legal action against the administrations of other schools, and eventually reaching the halls of Congress.
While Dick tracks their grassroots activism, he and his talking heads attack the universities from the top down, citing their financial and reputational disincentives to ignore and downplay the ubiquity of campus rape. The Hunting Ground smartly highlights the problem’s pervasiveness: Montages of interchangeable clock towers and campus greens are a backdrop to a slew of infuriating, extensively sourced statistics. As the film’s title indicates, Dick’s scorn gets the better of him in a few circumstances. He opens with a collection of YouTube videos of students receiving college acceptance letters, scored to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and then pivots to convocation speakers bracing students for the most important four years of their lives. However well-founded, the scare-mongering in this bit of mockery is unavoidably heavy-handed. (Ditto the leaden close-ups of doorknobs and bathroom tiles trotted out during survivors’ accounts, with all the flair of a 20/20 segment from the early ’90s.) Likewise, a subsequent stats reel lampooning the dignified tenor of college promotional materials would suit a Michael Moore film better than this otherwise earnest work of muckraking.
As journalism, The Hunting Ground is reasonably comprehensive. Segments on fraternities and athletics are refreshingly tactile reminders that the broad institutional silence surrounding campus rape can be directly tied to matters of money and political influence. A chapter focused on Elizabeth Kinsman’s experience after her alleged rape by Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has even broader implications, exposing a culture of alumni and rowdy sports fans with an interest in keeping Kinsman silent and shamed. Kinsman’s account and Dick’s sweeping critique of local police and university bigwigs make for a sweeping 15 minutes, but it’s a surprise that the culture of victim blaming doesn’t play a larger role in his film. This is one of a few instances where The Hunting Ground, rushed to theaters after its Sundance premiere, already feels behind the cultural moment, rehashing some nationally discussed scandals while eliding others.
The film rightly has no interest in discussing cases (like that in Rolling Stone’s infamous article “A Rape on Campus”) where the victim’s account comes into question; other hotly contested issues, such as the burden of proof on the accused, or whether rape cases should be reported to local police to circumvent ineffective campus services, go by more or less undiscussed. By limiting its focus to condemning university leaders and championing intrepid young activists, The Hunting Ground engages in pragmatic and honorable agitprop. One wishes the film were both long and bold enough to explore the legal issues and cultural crosscurrents swirling around it.