The Hunting Ground is Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s follow up to their multi-award winning 2012 film The Invisible War. Where the latter was an investigation of institutionalised rape in the US Military, The Hunting Ground, structurally and visually identical, extends this investigation to the vast network of American colleges and universities.
Its very tempting to rate a film like The Hunting Ground very highly for no other reason than the fact that it deals in stark, agreed upon morals that show us clearly what is right and what is wrong, who is perpetrator and who is victim. It is very difficult to separate a film like this from its subject matter, and so how much does whatever flaws the film have affect its message? None whatsoever really, so long as it gets the fact right. Kirby Dick has made a career of making films that challenge American institutions and show us how they really work, from the MPAA to the Military to the very institutions that provide American society with citizens educated enough to question these institutions in the first place.
There are many and varied arguments for and against the numerous possible definitions of rape and its causes – though there can be no doubt whatsoever about its effects on the victims, or, as this film insists on calling them, the survivors. This is the direction Dick seems to be taking here, and he has the statistics to back it up. The Hunting Ground supplies all of the usual arguments based on all of the usual premises, though there is an extra immediacy to hearing the stories not from”experts” or commentators but from the victims themselves. We even hear from a few male victims, an area of enquiry I was not sure the film would venture into. In its gender impartiality and level arguments we hear from some of the accused too, and their comments and justifications are all the same, citing alcohol as a major cause. One accused even went so far as to question whether non-consenual sex is even rape in the first place.
The really shocking part is that all of these victims attended and were assaulted at big name universities, Harvard and Florida State, among others. The overriding impression we get from the universities initially is an extreme reluctance to believe the victims. Heaven forbid word of this get out. The list of some of the ways that male students are “censured” if accused of rape is laughable at first, then shocking, then deeply saddening. These emotions, would the subject matter not be enough, are indicated through music changes, from sad (during, the many, many scenes of people crying) to sinister to hopeful and uplifting. Where the music is pretty on the nose, the graphics and the visuals are fairly sly, all of the terrifying statistics we are shown in some way incorporate University logos and slogans.
It becomes obvious as the film goes on that all of these institutions are more than willing to put their reputation and the fiscal rewards their star players bring ahead of the well-being (physical and mental) of their students. It’s telling that in order to get even a note of recognition from the universities, a group of victims were forced to delve into US case law and bring Title 9 cases against the universities themselves. These students then turn activist and have set up a model for other victims to do the same, all the time collecting and collating stories.
This is not so much a case of a film changing lives and institutions as it a film showing us institutions already in the process of change. And though there are still outstanding cases and new assaults occurring all the time, the process to begin to clamp down has been set in motion. The main problem with this though, is the continued existence in America in that bizarre para-campus institution, the male fraternity. Throughout The Hunting Ground we are shown brutal footage and told terrifying stories of frat houses and their actions on and off campus. One particular scene of drunk frat-boys chanting “…no means yes” is particularly chilling. That the majority of rapes take place in frat-houses during their legendary parties, is telling. More-so though, is the revelation that the frat-houses have a long history of supplying funds to universities through family and corporational history. I read recently that a few of the larger fraternities are now moving towards to a system of self-regulation as a means to combat the rape epidemic, but I cant help but feel that it is the lack of external regulation that led to the problem in the first place. One thing leads to another – this film seems intent on taking the institutions unwillingness to act as the principal problem. Surely it’s the fact that many men at universities (many of them repeat offenders, as the film points out) seem to think that female students are “game”…
My main personal concern with the film is in its use of language. I don’t think the problem will be taken seriously until the language of the cases changes. These are not “assaults”, they are rapes, the girls are victims, not “survivors”. One survives an earth quake or a car accident, not a rape. Surely campuses full of rape victims will be more willingly heard and better protected than a group of survivors? Apart from this, the Lady Gaga song on the soundtrack seems a little cynically tacked on, though for a cause such as this, any type of endorsement can only be a good thing.
This is not a perfect film, by any means, though as I said above, it is certainly not a bad one, and a film that tackles a subject like this with the intensity and resolve that this one does can be forgiven its minor problems.
Director: Kirby Dick
Writer: Kirby Dick
Stars: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, Amy Herdy
Runtime: 90 mins