Kirby Dick follows up “The Invisible War,” his searing Oscar-nominated study of sexual assault in the U.S. military, with this documentary about the same issue on the home front, more specifically on college campuses. “The Hunting Ground” is obviously a piece of activist filmmaking, making its points in a way that lacks the nuance of even-handed argument; but the subject is an extremely timely one, and it presents a very important side of it quite persuasively.
Dick begins on a monitory note, showing young girls and their families responding enthusiastically to the news that they’ve been accepted by the colleges and universities of their choice and moving into their dorm rooms. It proceeds immediately to revelations by several students, however, that they became the victims of sexual assault on campus, in some cases even before classes began, and it offers accounts by many others—a few in excruciating detail.
But it goes much further, casting an accusing finger at administrators at the schools who appear more interested in protecting the reputation of their institutions than in seeing to it that justice is done. Using specific cases as well as an array of statistics and graphics, it charges that they conduct their inquiries in a way that humiliates and blames the victims while usually exonerating the perpetrators or slapping them on the wrist with ridiculously mild penalties—something that’s especially the case when the accused is a star on a sports them: a good deal of time is devoted to the case of quarterback Jameis Winston of Florida State University, charged by Erica Kinsman of rape, which is also used to buttress the claim that law enforcement entities—both campus security forces and local police—are often complicit in what amount to cover-ups. The film also emphasizes that many of the worst offenses occur at fraternities, with one of them—Sigma Alpha Epsilon—singled out as notorious in that regard. (It’s the same frat that’s involved in the recent University of Oklahoma incident of racial discrimination.)
But “The Hunting Ground” is also the tale of women fighting back, employing as a unifying thread the story of Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, girls who were assaulted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who instead of allowing the truth to be swept under the carpet formed a campus, and from there a national, organization bringing victims together to demand action. Their work has led not merely to heightened awareness and demonstrations on campuses across the country, but to governmental action: Clark and Pino were among the first to use the Title IX portion of the 1972 Education Act to encourage the U.S. Department of Education to prod universities to deal with accusations of sexual assault more aggressively and fairly.
It’s impossible to disagree with Dick that rape is a serious problem on college campuses, fueled by an ocean of alcohol and the abundance of potential perpetrators and victims in close proximity—and often feeling their freedom for the first time. But his film might well point out that the epidemic of sexual assault he cites at colleges and universities mirrors a similar phenomenon in the larger society—and that the problem of victims’ being hounded or ignored is no less real off campus than on.
“The Hunting Ground” can also be criticized for one-sidedness. It largely ignores the thorny truth that the accused as well as accusers have rights, and accusation is not automatically proof of guilt. It’s undoubtedly true that some campus rapists have gotten away with their crimes—and the one perpetrator interviewed here not only admits his actions, but says that not being punished for them will only embolden the rapist to do it again. But the recent University of Virginia case—in which Sabrina Erdely’s Rolling Stone column about a purported gang rape at a fraternity has been shown to have been based on fabrication—indicates that simply to dismiss the issue of false accusation as statistically insignificant, as some of the experts interviewed in the course of the film do, would be a mistake. A further difficulty is that Dick’s statistics fail to distinguish between different forms of sexual aggression, which can range from unwanted approaches to violent rape. Lesser offenses might well call for the sort of modest punishments the film derides as ludicrously inadequate. What’s obviously needed is a societal decision to take all charges of sexual aggression seriously, on campus and off, to reject stigmatizing either accuser or accused until a thorough, honest investigation is completed without regard for the persons involved, and to mete out punishment that’s truly appropriate to the crime. Of course, that prescription should apply to all kinds of crime, not only sexual assault and not only to sexual assault on campus; and it can easily be dismissed as pie-in-the-sky, given the current state of the American judicial system.
So “The Hunting Ground” is certainly valuable in honing in on a serious problem at colleges and universities, where a large number of people just in the process of maturation are thrown together in an environment rife with possibilities both good and bad. It also makes a potent argument that the “higher learning” which institutions supposedly devoted to ideals of truth and beauty may impart to students in cases of sexual wrongdoing may well amount to mundane proof that factors like money, celebrity and a reputation for a “safe” campus often trump justice. But that’s a lesson that can apply to all kinds of wrongdoing everywhere in the society. Dick’s film oversimplifies matters somewhat, but in courageous individuals like Clark and Pino it provides great examples of how people can take the lead in improving things incrementally so that the ideal of “justice for all” can come closer to realization.