Directed by: Kirby Dick.
Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground makes no secret of where it stands on the issue of rape on college campus – clearly with the victims, who report what happened to unfeeling University Administrations, who go through rounds of victim blaming and neglect, making the victims feel even worse. The film doesn’t really pretend to be neutral – and clearly advocates for those who have been victimized, and point the blame not only at the rapists themselves but in the universities who are more interested in money than in protecting their students. If they reported the real number of rapes that happened on campus, people would be less likely to go there, and write those tuition cheques – not to mention the donation cheques from alumni. And if the accused is a member of a big time University sports team, forget it. That is a massive industry, and needs to be protected at all costs. The Hunting Ground is hardly a perfect documentary, both because of things within Dick’s control and things outside of it. The film would have benefitted from hearing from the schools themselves – but none of them are willing to talk to Dick (nor were they willing to talk to CNN in the post screening special of the film earlier this week) – although none of them seem to have problems issuing press releases defending what they do (actually being interviewed would require them to answer questions they don’t want to answer). Dick, who as a documentarian has moved farther and farther into advocacy over the years does perhaps lay things on a little thick at times in the film, and pushes perhaps a little too much. Yet, when the film remains focused on the victims – who tell their stories in their own words – it is a powerful documentary that no one can really argue with.
The film opens with happy scenes – the only ones in the movie – as the film plays the graduation song, as student after student checks online to find out that they have gotten into their dream school – that everything they’ve worked for through high school has now come true. Dick is doing this in bitter, cynical irony (it’s certainly one of the times he perhaps pushes too far), because right after that he will cut to women talking about they were raped by fellow students, even before classes began. Again and again throughout the film, Dick will return to these women who tell the same story again and again – they were raped, they reported it to the administration, who tried to get them to not file an official report, and did little or nothing even if they did. Dick, whose last film The Invisible War, tackled the issue of rape in the military, knows how to make a film about a giant institution looking out for themselves, who see rape as part of the cost of doing business. Neither of these films are as strong as Dick’s own Twist of Faith – about rape by Catholic Priests – and that’s because that film was more narrowly focused – telling an individual story, rather than making a film that casts as wide of a net as The Hunting Ground does. The film is successful because those individual stories still hit hard, and perhaps Dick was right to cast such a wide net, because in doing so it makes the problem harder to dismiss or belittle.
The film doesn’t delve too deep into many of the individual stories – except in the last part of the movie, which really does dive pretty deep into the allegations made against Jameis Winston – then Florida State’s star quarterback, who has since been drafted first overall in the NFL. The movie allows Winston’s accuser to tell her story – and it certainly sounds credible to me – but regardless of whether or not you do believe her, I’m not sure how anyone could be happy with the way the case was handled – where no one even attempted to talk to Winston for months after his alleged victim filed the complaint, the DNA in her rape kit wasn’t tested for more than a year, etc. There are many things that are disturbing about this was handled by the police and university – but not only them but the media and fellow Florida State students and fans –all of whom seem to immediately take Winston’s side, without knowing practically anything (how could they – the police didn’t even know since they barely bother to investigate). This is certainly not an isolated case here – just look at how a hell of lot of hockey fans immediately rallied to Patrick Kane’s defense when he was accused of rape this past summer, or how long it took for anyone to take Bill Cosby’s numerous accusers seriously. The Hunting Ground is about a specific problem of rape on University campuses – but it also at least hints at the problem of how society at large responds to the problem.
Normally, I will admit, I don’t much care for the so called advocacy documentaries – they are usually fairly dull, point and shoot affairs, that end with a call to arms and website address urging the viewer to “Get Involved!”. Even when they are about important issues, the films are needlessly dull – there is no reason to sacrifice artistry in a documentary. The Hunting Ground at times edges towards being that kind of film at times, but never quite crosses that line. The victims, who tell their story in their own words, keep the focus and the anger pointed at the right place throughout the documentary – and makes it one of the more powerful docs to hit theaters this year.