Have you seen Don McKellar?

Review: The Hunting Ground

When someone is at the peak of their social anxiety and depression following a sexual assault, the last thing they probably want to hear when coming forward about their trauma is that rape can be likened to a football game. Supposedly when you “lose,” all you can do is look back and think about what you would have done differently. This horrendously backwards thinking was provided to UNC Chapel Hill Freshman Annie Clark following her assault at the start of the school year by a female administrator that pretty much urged the young woman to not go through with any sort of legal action.

Such stories are sadly common, and documentarian Kirby Dick and collaborator Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, Outrage) have collected a wealth of injustices in their latest film, The Hunting Ground, to underline just how broken the justice system has become on American college and university campuses. Much like his previous film, which looked at the covering up of sexual assaults in the U.S. military, Dick pulls no punches and makes sure his incendiary points are salient, well researched, and most importantly, things that can be worked on and changed by simply believing victims and treating all people as equals.

The numbers regarding the overwhelming prevalence of sexual assaults on campuses don’t lie, but administrations intent on protecting brand image and loyalty tend to put them out of sight and out of mind. Multiple independent surveys and sources cite that anywhere between 16-20% of all women in their undergrad will face some sort of sexual assault or rape. Of that percentage, 88% of these incidents will go unreported. For men that are sexually assaulted (often at the hands of other men, who like the ones who attack women are often repeat offenders that go undisciplined or punished), the number of people reporting the crimes are so infinitesimally small that it almost can’t be measured. From those brave enough to go forward, most are met with a cycle of victim blaming and draconian, sexist policies that protect the violator more than the victim. Almost half of all schools in the United States curiously claim to have zero sexual assaults on the books. Those that do often give wrist slaps (make an anti-violence poster, a day’s suspension, write a paper about your feelings) as punishment; less than the disciplinary action that someone would get for cheating on an exam or plagiarizing a term paper.

The main fears of administrators and university presidents as outlined by Dick is that no school wants to be branded in any way as being a “rape campus.” And yet, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that big business has been trumping the needs of the community for ages, especially when talking about notorious fraternities (particularly SAE, often referred to as Sexual Assault Expected, which just this week found itself banned from University of Oklahoma for racist activities, as well) and the protection of star athletes (the case against Florida State’s Jameis Winston is infuriating, especially when ESPN’s First Take gas bag Stephen Smith goes on one of the most depressing victim shaming tirade imaginable).

But the one thing that The Hunting Ground has that the similarly minded Invisible War has going for it is hope. Through sometimes uncomfortably intimate interviews with victims, families, and faculty that have essentially committed career suicide for daring to speak up for students, Dick thoroughly documents a system that’s not too late to be changed and overhauled for the better. Title IX legislation means that any student can go over the heads of their school’s administration and go to court with their complaints of an unsafe environment. Clark and fellow classmate and victim Andrea Pino have begun travelling the country to create a support group network to give comfort and legal help to those in need. In short, Dick wants to make it known that although things might seem hopeless, there’s still room for change and ways to make sure this problem can become a higher priority to those that choose to ignore it.

The Hunting Ground isn’t a subtle movie, with the best evidence being the inclusion of a theme song from Lady Gaga titled “Till It Happens to You” (although, admittedly, it’s a pretty great track). It has flashy graphics, throws out a bunch of statistics, and the insert shots of college campuses look appropriately menacing. But such stylistic choices are understandable when one remembers that Dick is purposely trying to engage with the audience most likely to affect change with regard to the topic. It will be eye opening for adults, but it has the power to be life changing for students of a certain age. As such, there might not be a more effective and vitally important documentary this year.

[star v=5]

Andrew Parker

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