Directed by: Kirby Dick
Premise: A documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. The filmmakers argue that colleges and universities are failing victims and abetting perpetrators of sexual assault in order to protect the reputation and finances of their institutions.
What Works: Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick has frequently taken on social issues, often addressing abuses of power by institutions, and many of his films have been deliberately provocative in their style and approach such as This Film is Not Yet Rated and Outrage. In 2012 Dick released The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual abuse in the United States military. That movie had a very different style from the director’s other work. It was much more solemn and less snarky than his other films and it had a more naturalistic filmmaking style. The Hunting Ground is very much like The Invisible War, playing as a companion piece in many ways, and it takes a similar approach to the topic of sexual assault on college campuses. The movie is primarily about the efforts of Annie Clark and Andrea Pino as they recover from their own assaults and network with women from other campuses who have suffered similar experiences. Their story is an inspiring one and the filmmakers are able to use it as a frame through which to examine the issue. One of the admirable qualities of this film is that it never feels exploitative. The filmmakers generally let these men and women speak for themselves without unnecessarily trumping up their stories with dramatic filmmaking effects. That gives The Hunting Ground a stark look and as a result it is frequently a tough film to watch but the information in it makes The Hunting Ground an extremely important picture that in the very least ought to make viewers reconsider how we treat victims both individually and institutionally.
What Doesn’t: Although the tone is handled well, the argumentation of The Hunting Ground
suffers from some serious flaws. The filmmakers never question their
own assumptions and the movie suffers from confirmation bias. The
filmmakers establish the urgency of the problem by stating that
one-in-five female college students are sexually assaulted, a figure
frequently cited by advocates, but the picture does not explain why
those numbers are reliable or how they were reached. This is important
because the veracity of that popular statistic has been questioned. The arguments of The Hunting Ground
are also problematic in that the film takes every accuser at her word.
Given the trauma experienced by rape victims and (according to figures
presented in the film) only between two and ten percent of rape
accusations are false, taking their side is understandable. But a
documentary film falls under the same expectations as print journalism
and there is no evidence on screen that the filmmakers independently
verified the accusations that they present. This becomes a problem for
the movie when filmmakers go so far as to name some of the alleged
attackers and pass judgement on them without sufficient evidence. This
does not mean that campus sexual assault is a myth or that it isn’t a
problem. But it does mean that the claims made in this documentary are
contestable and the accusations by the filmmakers are questionable if
not outright irresponsible. Despite the filmmakers’ interest in the
stories of abuse, The Hunting Ground does not effectively demonstrate how colleges and universities failed these victims. Unlike The Invisible War,
this film does not delve as deeply into the mechanics of higher
education and how the institutions railroad the victims. Instead,
injustice is inferred instead of revealed. The Hunting Ground
also ignores the way campus culture promotes sexual assault. The movie
draws connections between the Greek system, collegiate sports, and
university revenues but it does not interrogate campus life in a
meaningful way as seen in the Penn State documentary Happy Valley. The Hunting Ground
concludes on an upbeat note that is supposed to inspire hope but given
the pervasiveness of the problem and the forces bearing down on
solutions, this optimistic finale comes across forced and disingenuous.
Bottom Line: The Hunting Ground is a movie made by people on a crusade. The moral fury of the picture is justified and everyone involved seems to be earnest about what they are doing; this is not a hack job. But earnest intentions do not excuse sloppy argumentation. In the least, The Hunting Ground brings an important issue to the fore but at best it represents the beginning—not the end—of a longer discussion.
Episode: #539 (April 26, 2015)