When director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering were touring university campuses with The Invisible War, their Oscar-nominated film about sexual assault and cover-up in the military, they had some interesting feedback. Women students said, in effect, that it was the same story at their schools. Let's run that again: The guardians of liberal freedom in those hot houses of political correctness behave like the marines when it comes to closing ranks against accusations of sexual assault?
Fortunately, silence isn't so easy to impose on students.
Though far from a perfect film, The Hunting Ground is a significant piece of advocacy journalism that shows young women refusing to be mute about crimes that have been commited against them. Though there are statistics galore, it's the stories that stick. These students use their real names. They don't look like they want to be on camera, but they don't flinch or become emotional. They describe experiences of cruel violence or of authority figures' callousness, and it's heartbreaking.
No doubt the filmmakers knowingly included women who were high-achieving, relatable and articulate, and, in all the cases we see, they were supported by their families. This is a film aimed at making mainstream audiences aware that campus sexual assault is common. The film was produced by CNN (the same cable network which drew outrage for its sympathetic coverage of the Steubenville, Ohio, high school rapists in 2013), and it follows last year's White House's initative to address campus sexual violence.
The film opens with a montage of scenes of young women and their families getting the joyful news that they've been received into college, the gateway to a better life.
Move forward to the first couple of weeks of school, and we start hearing the grim testimonies: There's a friendly mixer with alcohol, and suddenly, a first-year student finds herself isolated with a guy she's just met. This is nothing like the mixed-message drunken hook-up scenario so often cited by conservatives skeptics.
Professor David Lisak insists that most rapes are committed by a small percentage of serial predators. One of them, his face pixilated, is interviewed in jail.
Annie Clark, a pre-med freshman at University of North Carolina, had her head slammed into a wall before she was assaulted. A college counsellor suggested that Clark think of her rape like a lost football game, and to re-evaluate what errors she made.
Later, Andrea Pino, another student at UNC, who was dragged into a bathroom and raped, contacted Clark. They decided to put their stories out there, and encouraged other women from across the country to do the same through videos, e-mails and social media. The movement found its legal focus in a Title IX requirement (a rule against discrimination by allowing an unsafe environement) that has put about 100 colleges under investigation.
The Hunting Ground's film's biggest journalistic "get" is the first on-camera interview with Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student who accused star quarterback Jameis Winston of drugging and raping her. Among other things, she told of the waves of malice she was subjected to by his supporters. Her story supports a larger claim in the film that sports teams and fraternities are so key to U.S. college funding that the schools' administrations are cowed by them.
As emotionally powerful as these personal accounts are, The Hunting Ground is sometimes a frustratingly blunt film. The filmmakers mix up talking heads, re-enactments, animation and on-screen text with graphics and charts in a way that emphasizes urgency over esthetic polish.
Understandably, there are a lot of statistics presented in the film – assault rates, conviction and expulsion rates, false rape charges (minimal) and percentages of college athletes and fraternity members who commit crimes. Most of these figures go by too quickly to examine them in any detail, and while, no doubt, the data is important for shaping social change, numbers are better at inducing shock than empathy.
The Hunting Ground reminds us that both the numbers and stories are needed. And the stories these advocates tell demonstrate courage in the face of injustice in a way the numbers never can.