“The Hunting Ground,” a documentary shocker about rape on American college campuses, goes right for the gut.
A blunt instrument of a movie, it derives its power largely from the many young women and some men recounting on camera how they were raped at their schools and then subsequently denied justice by those same schools. Their stories – delivered in sorrow and rage, with misting eyes and squared jaws – make this imperfect movie a must-watch work of cine-activism, one that should be seen by anyone headed to college and by those already on campus.
The movie arrives in the midst of a vigorous, sometimes furious and at times crudely simplistic national discussion about sexual assault. Fueling that discussion is the Obama administration, which has made the issue a priority. In 2014, the White House released guidelines on how campus rapes are to be treated. In a move that continues to make waves, it also released the names of 55 schools – from Harvard College to the University of California, Berkeley – that were under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling (or mishandling) of rape accusations. At issue is whether they violated federal laws under Title IX, which bans gender discrimination at colleges receiving federal money.
In “The Hunting Ground,” writer-director Kirby Dick, working with producer Amy Ziering, crams a crowd of faces and one seemingly unwieldy subject into a painful and absorbing, if periodically cluttered, 103-minute documentary.
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Not ‘straight journalism’
Subscribing to the more-is-more school of documentary, the director pulls out all of the stops in this movie, using talking-head interviews, vérité-like scenes, seemingly generic archival imagery, seemingly nongeneric archival imagery and numerous graphics, including some footnote-like citations. Visually the movie is somewhat of a mess, and although that can be frustrating, it does reflect, wittingly or not, the cacophony defining the current discourse on rape.
“The Hunting Ground” belongs to a long tradition of documentary advocacy cinema; it isn’t straight journalism, but there are instances when it could benefit from a more conventional approach. That becomes evident when Dick focuses on an image of Michael Gottfredson, president of the University of Oregon from 2012 to 2014, and some text reading: “Allowed two basketball players accused of involvement in a gang rape to play in the NCAA tournament. Both players were expelled after the tournament.”
Dick doesn’t name the athletes or follow up with school officials. This leaves you guessing whether these are the same athletes named in a Title IX lawsuit filed last month by a female student against the university and Dana Altman, a coach, for their handling of her reported rape by three school basketball players. On Feb. 9, the university and Altman filed a countersuit against the female student. What cuts through the filmmaking clutter are the young women and men who share their accounts of abuse by both their attackers and their schools.
Among the featured interviewees are Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who say they became acquainted after Pino was raped in 2012 while enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Pino reached out to Clark, who said that, she too, had been raped at the school. The two became allies and friends, and in 2013 they filed a Title IX complaint against the university with the Department of Education. It’s unclear when Dick contacted Pino and Clark, whose stirring stories he charts with seamlessly integrated original and archival material.
Pino and Clark are courageous, inspiring figures, and they, along with the other women and men who talk openly about their school histories and ordeals, are the reasons to see “The Hunting Ground.” As Pino, Clark and the other interviewees share their lives on camera, their voices underscore that publicly talking about rape isn’t just an act of political radicalism, but also a way for survivors to reclaim their lives. By speaking out, they are asserting that they, rather than their assailants, are the narrators of their own stories, the agents of their destinies.
Getting the message out
Dick doesn’t specifically address this openness, but it’s impossible not to think – as woman after woman speaks – that it is female empowerment itself that is driving some of the backlash directed at rape activists. Dick addresses that backlash rather obliquely, as in a section in which interviewees swat away the issue of false rape claims. It’s too bad that he doesn’t dig into whether the new guidelines to protect (mostly) women are infringing on the civil rights of men, as Emily Yoffe argued in Slate last December.
In her article, Yoffe took issue with the statistic that 1 in 5 women will have been sexually assaulted by the time they graduate, a number that’s been invoked by President Barack Obama and is repeated in “The Hunting Ground.” Dick wields that number and many others, as if to assure us that there are statistics to back up these testimonials. He doesn’t need to play the numbers game. The women and men taking on institutional power are getting the message out – brilliantly.
The Hunting Ground
B Director: Kirby Dick
Length: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (stories about violent sexual assault)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.