Jun 062015


The Hunting Ground starts with a sucker punch – one in five women attending college in the United States will be the victim of sexual assault. That’s a terrifying number to get your head around. What are the college administrators doing to address this problem? If the film is to believed, they’re more interested in protecting their brand than the rights of the individual student. The Hunting Ground is reviewed after the jump.

Andrea and Annie were the victims of sexual assault while students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their attackers – fellow students. Both reported their assaults and both received little to no support from the college administrators. In fact, they claimed that the fallout from their reporting of their crimes, was a far greater trauma than the assault itself. They were dissuaded for speaking, they were victim-blamed by those they thought would protect and support them while their attackers remained on campus.

Unwilling to let the college get away with shirking their responsibilities, Andrea and Annie decided the college needed to answer for the unsafe environment and they filed a Title IX charge against them.  The title says in part:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Their filing of the charge starts a movement and the two women dedicate themselves to helping other survivors file claims against their respective institutions.

Their story is not unique – The Hunting Ground presents interviews with many victims of sexual assault on campus who tell chillingly similar stories. These women come from kaleidoscope of different institutions, from huge public schools, to Ivy leagues, and smaller private institutions. The filmmakers call it an ‘epidemic’, and the numbers seem to support this claim. Along with the main story line of Andrea and Annie, the filmmakers interview many survivors, former university administrators, parents,  a clinical psychologist and many more. The picture these testimonies paint is horrifying.

The film lays the blame at the feet of the college administrators. Colleges have a massive financial incentive to keep these stories swept under the carpet and very little incentive to help the victims. Alumni, fraternities, college sports, donations – this money keeps colleges humming and the administration is willing to go to any lengths to protect it; this also means “protecting” those students accused of assault who are involved in the aforementioned money-machines. Colleges are brands and it’s hard to market a brand if you saddled with the reputation of being a “rape school”.

In the q&a after the film, Producer Amy Ziering spoke of how they wanted this film to make an impact and case change. The film had been engineered with this goal in mind. They purposefully chose students from a variety of schools, so that people couldn’t watch the film and say, “well that problem is only happening in X type of institution”. She explained they also took care to show political representatives from both the Democrats and the Republicans.  Ziering and director Kirby Dick’s previous film The Invisible War spurned changes to the way rape is prosecuted in the military, and they were hoping for this film to also have a measurable impact.

The Hunting Ground is not without its critics however, with several pieces claiming the film omitted key facts, used questionable data to support its statistics, and did not ask colleges for comment until after the film had been submitted for Sundance consideration. Speaking about Harvard student Kamilah Willingham, whose story is featured in the film, Emily Yoffe at Slate writes

But there is another story, which the filmmakers do not tell. It’s a story in which Willingham’s accusations are taken seriously and Winston’s actions are thoroughly investigated, first by Harvard University and later by the Middlesex County district attorney’s office. It’s a story in which neither the school nor the legal system finds that a rape occurred, and in which Willingham’s credibility is called seriously into question

The Washington Examiner claims that the film used questionable studies to support their statistics. They write:

The lack of specifics in the inquiry, coupled with the lack of any appropriate request for comment from the other side, sound very reminiscent of the problems that brought down Rolling Stone’s gang-rape article.

This is how the filmmakers came up with something resembling an activist propaganda film. They also peppered it with numerous flawed statistics as the base assumption that college women in America are being preyed upon at every turn by their male friends.

These are troubling claims and if true, disrespectful to the survivors of these crimes who spoke so bravely and openly. False rape reporting (which is in-line with false reporting of any type of crime), makes it even harder for victims to speak out. Falsifying information to make a stronger case could have a similarly negative impact. Producer Amy Zeiring revealed that she is currently facing two lawsuits stemming from the film. Are these suits another example of institutions using their power and money to try to make the issue disappear?

Regardless of any statistical errors or problems with individual cases presented in this film, the issue of rape culture is a real one, and it is one which stretches far beyond the borders of American college campuses. Victim-blaming and a lack of institutional support is a very real problem in Australia and I believe any film which starts a conversation about these issues is a meaningful one. Andrea and Annie started something incredible with their Title IX charges and I was incredibly moved by their courage and conviction. See this film. It is important and it is relevant.


By Sam McCosh


The Facts

Director: Kirby Dick
Producer: Amy Ziering
Country: USA
Runtime: 103 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: 6:30pm, Fri 12 June (Event Cinemas George St).