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Interview: Kirby Dick talks The Hunting Ground

In the world of documentary filmmaking, there are few socially conscious crusaders more motivated and harder working than Kirby Dick. The twice Oscar nominated filmmaker has worked on uncovering the dark secrets of organizations that quite often seek to cover up their complacency in larger, unseen crimes. From the Catholic church (Twist of Fate), to the U.S. Senate (Outrage), to the MPAA (This Film is Not Yet Rated), and most recently the American military (The Invisible War), Dick has uncovered numerous dark secrets and disheartening inconsistencies in organizations that can quite often harm or misinform the very people they are trying to help and protect. His latest film, made with frequent collaborator Amy Ziering, is no exception.

For The Hunting Ground (opening in select Canadian cities this Friday following a successful debut in Hot Docs’ Doc Soup series last week), Dick and Ziering turn their focus towards the covering up of reported rapes and sexual assaults on American college and university campuses. Speaking to victims, advocates, experts, and select past and present school administrators, Dick and his team have uncovered a startling and heartbreaking look at a system in a state of complete failure on a widespread level. Universities and colleges, in moves designed to protect their brand and make their schools more desirable to students and parents, have been covering up the truth about widespread rape and sexual assault allegations.

Approximately one in four female students will experience a sexual assault during their stint in academia. Only about a quarter of those will get reported thanks to the shame and victim blaming that has become commonplace among certain administrations and those in power. The fear of litigation over a potential false accusation or the irreparable damage that the media can cause from branding a school as unsafe creates an environment of ineffective management and unaccountability. How prevalent is this ineffectiveness? Most universities have policies in place for perpetrators of sexual assault that come with smaller penalties for being found guilty than someone who cheated on an exam or plagiarized a paper. The result is that some schools can become breeding grounds for sexual predators that are often free to commit violations again and again without repercussions.

We spoke with Dick during a recent appearance in Toronto to talk about gathering information amid a cover up, the effectiveness of campus police forces, the protection of a brand, and his current thoughts on the MPAA.

There will be a lot of people who will probably make comparisons between The Hunting Ground and two of your previous films: The Invisible War and Twist of Faith. One of the first things I wanted to ask you at the start was about your access to information when putting together The Hunting Ground. It seems like when you’re trying to portray how widespread of a problem campus sexual assaults might be, it could be harder to get because you’re dealing with private institutions that aren’t required by law to present these facts and figures. It’s not like dealing with the military, which is still – to a certain extent – a governmental adjunct that has to make a lot of its figures on policing itself known to the public and the media. Dealing with the military or the government can be a pain, but eventually you can figure that out and piece things together, but how to you deal with private institutions that seek to cover up crimes that often go unreported?

Kirby Dick: It definitely is harder. You’re absolutely right. With Invisible War, even though the military hadn’t done nearly enough studies to really get a handle on their problems, there were a lot more studies that had been done and with a much higher population base and response rate than there had been at the colleges and universities we were looking into.

That’s part of the problem. The first step to solving this is transparency and awareness. To understand the problem, students, faculty, and administration need to always be aware of what’s happening on their campus. Schools should be conducting annual, anonymous surveys with their population and their students to find out what the rate of sexual assault is, how many people report it, and how confident people are in terms of how the school is investigating and adjudicating such matters. That information should be disseminated not only to the school, but publically. That kind of information will send a message to people that the school is interested in solving the problem. Until they do that, in essence they’re covering up the problem. That’s what they’re doing. If a school is fighting against doing a school specific survey that should be made public, they are part of the problem and are continuing to cover it up.

Especially in today’s climate, it seems like this level of accountability would be something that would be more known than it actually is. If the media had knowledge of these facts in this form, they would probably be more likely to cover these stories. It’s just that no one really seems to be forthcoming. When you were doing research going into the film and you were speaking to people who have written books on the subject and advocates, were you surprised at how many or how few people had become well versed in this topic that weren’t sadly already victims of something like this?

KD: For the extent of the problem, there aren’t many people talking about it. That’s sadly true. It’s just not something that’s being funded at all, or I don’t think it is or those results are again being kept only within administration. Schools certainly aren’t clamouring to talk about it or jumping at the chance to fund this kind of research to make it public, and if they have, they haven’t exactly been forthcoming about what they’ve been finding. But while there are very few studies and even fewer books that have been written on the subject, there are tens of thousands of students, faculty, and victims who speak openly about it. This is no secret on college campuses. It’s no secret among the students. It’s sad that in the U.S., and probably a lot of Canada, as well, has blithely gone along in thinking that this isn’t a problem, and contributed to generations of young women and men to be sexually assaulted.

In one of the most powerful points in the film, you travel to Notre Dame and speak to an officer who was once a proud member of the campus police force – and a former proper police officer – who left his job because he felt the school was not taking matters seriously. It’s interesting when you look at colleges and universities and remember that they have their own police force that has the capability to keep things in house. Later in the film when you bring up what happened in Florida State with the Jameis Winston case, we see that spread to a larger community that’s capable of keeping things delayed and quiet, but do you think these in-house police forces are part of the problem or part of the solution? To me, it seems like whenever you’re dealing with a criminal issue of this magnitude, it should almost immediately go beyond the force that’s essentially hired security.

KD: Right, that’s true, but some campus police are really well trained and really excellent. Some campus police forces have a great deal of integrity and will investigate. A lot of them, in some ways, are beholden to the university and will participate in cover ups. There are both kinds. Really, campus police are only as effective as their leadership and the administration that utilizes them, as you can see in that Notre Dame segment of the film. If the school won’t follow up and properly condemn the results of a thorough investigation that finds misconduct has occurred, then that’s not the fault of the officers, per say, but the fault of the school itself.

When a student reports, they have three options: report to the school, report to the police, or do both. The police, obviously if they feel comfortable doing that, is always the best way to go, but there are many reasons why someone won’t report to police. Sometimes police can be harsher blamers of the victim of than the school or campus police. Sometimes there’s a stigma there. Sometimes even if there is a great deal of investigation, prosecutors don’t take the cases forward. Sometimes students that are victims will often give up because they’re in a challenging academic program to better their future, and they don’t want to spend two years going through a criminal trial and have that stress and anxiety over this time.

We have to remember that whether a victim or a student or a faculty member reports something or not, schools still have an obligation to keep their environments safe. So if someone comes forward with a sexual assault and names somebody, the school has to be obligated to investigate that on their own, and for the obvious reason that most of these assaults are caused by a small percentage of men who will be serial offenders that will strike again and again. So once someone reports that someone has committed an assault, there’s about a fifty percent chance that this person will assault again, has assaulted before, or both.

Now schools can’t put someone in prison. That’s what the police can do. Schools can only make a judgment about what happened. If they find a person responsible in their own investigation, they can suspend or expel them, but as you can see in my film, that almost never happens or they’re slapped with some even more ridiculously ineffective form of punishment and sanctions that are less than if you were to get caught cheating on an exam. In most cases, suspension or expulsion is what should happen, but far too often it doesn’t. If they were to do that instead of assigning other forms of punishment, they would at the very least be protecting their community. So to get there, schools have to treat this as a top priority.

They need to put more money into these investigative and adjudicative processes. Put more money into researching where the problems are on campus. What will happen is that they’ll be better trained and better able to find these perpetrators and kick them off campus, and for the extremely few cases of false reports of sexual assaults, they’ll be better trained with how to adjudicate that and protect those people. That’s just a win-win situation, but no one is really doing it.

One of the main throughlines in the film, and something that I don’t think a lot of people realize, is the concept of a brand protecting its supposedly good name at all costs. These are institutions that thrive primarily on private funding and tuitions. You can’t get on a subway car without finding an advertisement for a college or university in some shape or another. It’s big business, especially when you start talking about athletics and people becoming personal brands that are attached to larger brands. Student athletes are essentially endorsement deals made with their schools before they can properly be compensated for it. You covered the kind of branding the U.S. military uses in your last film, but this is arguably on the whole a bigger worldwide business for brands that live and die by their perception in the public.

KD: Yeah, and universities somewhat unlike the military, become even bigger businesses. The endowments that are bestowed upon colleges and universities are often extremely significant, which, you know, we’re all for money going into higher education. We’re all for people going to college, but we want the schools to put the safety and health of their students over their reputation and brand of their school. No amount of advertising and brand loyalty, which is something universities have had across generations in some families, can make up for an unsafe environment.

The last thing I wanted to talk to you about, and this is a little away from the topic here, is that your film received a PG-13 rating in the U.S. I was actually afraid that because of the subject matter that it would get an R-rating. Considering that you made a film (This Film is Not Yet Rated) that went after the hypocritical standards of the MPAA, I was wondering what your thoughts were on certain theatre chains and independent theatre owners looking at films like Citizenfour – which was a really tame documentary that received an R-rating for language – and saying that they aren’t going to agree with the MPAA rating designation and allow people of any age to see the film.

KD: I think that’s great what’s happening in that respect. I think, also, that if the MPAA had their way, they would never rate documentaries. It’s an organization that’s not really interested in documentaries. It views them as a headache and a waste of time. They have to maintain some semblance of consistency with everything else they rate, but in order to do that or pretend to take it seriously they have to conform to the same tired rules that already don’t work for everything else they rate. I really don’t think the MPAA should be in the business of rating documentaries. If they want to have a regulatory body to do ratings, they should just rate the studio films and keep their hands off of everything else.

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker is a freelance film critic in Toronto. You can follow him on twitter @andrewjparker.