Dir: Kirby Dick. US. 2014. 102mins

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground is Kirby Dick’s j’accuse on the plague of sexual abuse at American universities. Troubling and thorough, it won’t generate much school spirit.  Arriving in the wake of The Invisible War, Dick’s 2012 film about rampant sexual predation in the US military, The Hunting Ground takes a somber tone, and delivers alarming testimony and statistics. 

Befitting the film’s blunt style, Dick hammers at fraternities where alcohol fuels male group predation and at the sports businesses that many universities have become.

The uncompromising film is a rallying cry for its cause, and may find its most passionate public at the very institutions that it condemns.  Exposure on CNN could boost the doc and the struggling cable network. Television outside the US may leap at this one for its glaring revelations of violence and hypocrisy at venerable places.

Hypocrisy is in the air as the film begins with American teenagers receiving acceptance letters from universities, with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance in the background.

This film’s cinema is more factual than incandescent, but the charges are incendiary. Chilling statistics are presented in text – college students face a high risk of sexual assault. Often the aggressors are repeat offenders who are punished rarely and lightly. Athletes who rape or abuse women tend to protected. Universities discourage victims from talking or going to the police.

US media call the huge problem an epidemic, but the individual stories of the rare women who came forward are the core of Dick’s film. Two women from the University of North Carolina, both raped on campus, give gripping testimony of their experiences and form an advocacy group that the doc follows.

In another grim account, a woman at the companion college of the Notre Dame University tells of being raped by a football player, who remains on the team as her complaint is shunted aside. School officials don’t comment, yet former administrators stress that universities, even Catholic ones, seek to minimize any attention to sexual crimes, for fear of losing crucial donations from alumni. Money talks, and here money also silences. 

Befitting the film’s blunt style, Dick hammers at fraternities where alcohol fuels male group predation and at the sports businesses that many universities have become.  A case history that crystallises the scandal comes from a young student who speaks on camera of being the victim of one of the country’s most prominent college athletes.

The woman, Erica Kinsman, charged that Florida State University’s star quarterback, Jameis Winston, drugged her in a bar and assaulted her in an apartment as his friends watched. Police response was begrudgingly slow, but Winston’s DNA was eventually found in her rape kit. After an investigation (by a detective who raises funds for FSU athletics), Florida State took no measures against Winston. Nor did a local prosecutor, who says on camera that he lacked evidence to bring charges. Winston is now poised to enter the National Football League with a huge contract.

For coming forward, Winston’s accuser was abused again on the Internet and by television sports journalists, with a public cruelty that went beyond the tawdry standards of victim-blaming exposed in the doc.

The Hunting Ground is emphatic, even zealous, in its insistence that those standards change. Its poignant stories ensure that the parade of abuse charges doesn’t become a statistical monotone.

Yet the film has tics that might irk skeptics. Victim of campus violence call themselves survivors, a term that some might find overstated. When they tell their stories, it’s clear why they use that term.  Also, Dick does not address widely reported accounts of rape at the University of Virginia and Duke University that have since been discredited, undermining debate on campus sex abuse.  Still, the broader statistics corroborate what the victims recount. 

Dozens of university presidents declined to be interviewed for The Hunting Ground. Now that the film is out, keeping quiet may no longer be an option.

Production companies, backers:  CNN Films, Regina K. Scully, Paul Blavin, CanalPlus, Cuomo Cole Productions, Minerva Productions, Impact Partners, ro*co films

International sales: ro*co films, www.rocofilms.com

Producer: Amy Ziering

Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Nicole Boxer, Jacki Zehner, Sarah Johnson, Barbara Dobkin, Ted Dintersmith, Elizabeth Hazard Dintersmith, Julie Lépinard, Sébastien Lépinard, Anne O’Shea, Brian Quattrini, Wendy Schmidt, Julie Smolyansky, Maria Cuomo Cole, Mark Gerson, Barbara Gerson, Sukey Novogratz, Bob Compton, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Amy Blavin, Paul Blavin, Regina K. Scully, Amy Entelis, Vinnie Malhotra, Tom Quinn, Jason Janego

Cinematographers: Thaddeus Wadleigh, Aaron Kopp

Editors: Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra, Kim Roberts

Music: Miriam Cutler