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(A brief opening note: Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground is an in-depth documentary about the prevalence of rape on college campuses. Since this review will have to touch on much of what’s depicted, TW.)
The Hunting Ground opens on a series of YouTube videos of high school seniors, mostly women, reacting to the news that they’ve been accepted into their dream colleges. One after the next, the celebrations grow rapturous, and why wouldn’t they? College is the dream to which so many young people aspire, a time to learn, to begin one’s autonomous adult life, and hell, maybe to go off and cut loose for a while, free from the watchful eye of concerned parentage. It’s supposed to be an ideal to which many can aspire, a place that builds the future leaders of tomorrow. That’s the line colleges market and sell; this is where you go to find yourself and to set the tone for whatever comes next.
The problem that Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War) addresses in The Hunting Ground is that this has become, in some respects, an outright lie. Specifically, the safety and protection and equality promised on college campuses by schools as it relates to the issue of sexual assault and rape. It’s not even so much an issue, really, as it’s an epidemic; as the film states, one in five women (on average) are raped during a given school year, according to statistics gathered as recently as last year. But despite the immediacy of these numbers, Dick is careful to point out that this isn’t a new problem. It’s just one that American society is finally starting to talk about.
One major contributing facet to that change is owed to the Herculean efforts of Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two former students at the University of North Carolina. Both were raped during their time on campus, both went through the proper hierarchical channels assuming that the situation would be handled in an expedient manner, and both tragically had to learn what so many women around America and the world have: nobody seemed to particularly care, and their rapists were essentially slapped on the hand so that the school might save face. This is a point Dick makes abundantly clear throughout the doc; the supposed reprimands and “very serious” approaches schools purport to take to rape and sexual assault cases are too frequently nice-sounding buzzwords, rather than standard practices.
While the film volleys disturbing statistics throughout (on average, 88% of rapes on campuses go unreported), The Hunting Ground keeps the focus exactly where it should be: on the survivors. The film’s many harrowing stories offer a distinct rebuke to those who consider most accusations false and asks audiences to simply watch and listen, to table politics for a while and listen to the many, many young men and women who lived through something that nobody should ever have to and were ostracized when they tried to seek out appropriate justice. Through Clark and Pino, the film illustrates in detail the frustration felt by going through the legal system as they were instructed, only to be interrogated about how drunk they were, whether their clothing was too revealing, whether they were actually raped at all or just had buyer’s remorse after the fact. Much of this information can be found in the news, through the right channels, but there’s something distinctly different about seeing it in practice. For Dick, it’s easy to write it off when it’s a news article, far harder when you have to listen to a person.
Like Erica Kinsman, for instance. If the first half of The Hunting Ground chronicles Clark and Pino’s tireless work toward raising awareness of the severity of this problem, the latter expands its focus, forming an indictment of certain hyper-aggressive facets of college culture in general. Primarily, the fraternity and sports cultures. The film takes care to not indict those systems out of hand but rather the harmful power they have when left unchecked. At the center of this is Kinsman, who goes public for the first time about having been raped by star Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and about how she was subsequently told by Tallahassee police that messing with FSU football would have consequences. Sadly, they were right; Kinsman was threatened, often, and fans onscreen are quick to slander her name. While the case was thrown out, it’s hard to listen to Kinsman’s account and still cluck tongues at her. This isn’t a stride taken to supplant the legal system, necessarily, but instead to insist that both sides be heard, when too often only one is.
That’s really the purpose of The Hunting Ground; Dick wants audiences to set aside their phobias of false accusations (which tend to be somewhere between 2 and 8 percent of all reports) and hear people out. (Granted, the film doesn’t extend its breadth to the much higher numbers inflicted on the trans community or men and women of color and does keep its primary focus on the most well-known news stories. Take that however you may.) The film takes on a complex, difficult issue, one with no easy solutions, particularly when Clark and Pino are among the first to acknowledge how integral the economics of college institutions, from recruitment to sports, are in maintaining the pressure for victims to remain silent. But for the many stories of anguish on display in the film, The Hunting Ground ends on a note of change. From Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress protest at Columbia to Clark and Pino’s work in educating people on how to use Title IX law to press the matter in cases where authorities fail to do so, the tide is turning. It’s not turning quickly, and there will probably be more of these cases before things really do evolve, but it’s something. There’s hope, now.
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