Sundance Film Review: ‘The Hunting Ground’

The Hunting Ground Sundance

Kirby Dick's gripping follow-up to the 'The Invisible War' investigates sexual assault on college campuses.

After the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War,” a brutal expose of the problem of sexual assaults in the military, documaker Kirby Dick turns his lens on institutions of higher learning, seeing a similar institutional failure to act. The subject is already in the news thanks to a Department of Education investigation, reports of various protests (including a Columbia student who carries a mattress with her), proposed legislation and a Rolling Stone story — since disavowed — on the U. of Virginia. With a premiere where it was announced that Senators Barbara Boxer and Kirsten Gillibrand were in attendance, this galvanic and compelling doc seems likely to reverberate in the public discourse and beyond, likely matching or exceeding its predecessor’s performance when Radius releases it in March.

Scored to an ironic use of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the pic opens with homevideos of women receiving their college acceptance letters, with cries of “I got in!” While this may seem like cheap cynicism, it sets up one of the major arguments of the film, which is that universities are selling a brand and have a financial incentive to downplay incidents of campus sexual assault. Citing studies from 2000 to the present that suggest that 16% to 20% of women are sexually assaulted, the film makes the case that colleges are breeding grounds — not an association they like. Harvard Law lecturer Diane L. Rosenfeld draws an analogy: If you were to advertise that a prospective student had an equivalent chance of being the victim of a drive-by shooting, their desire to pay tuition would diminish.

The film’s central figures are Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, students-turned-activists who led a campaign to file a civil rights complaint against U. of North Carolina. The women recount their own experiences of sexual assault: Clark says her rape was compared by an administrator to a football game that she should have played differently. Harvard law student Kamilah Willingham recalls seeing the man she accused expelled and then reinstated. As in “The Invisible War,” one by one women (and occasional men) appear on camera with eerily similar stories, of how colleges downplayed the crimes’ severity or of the peer intimidation that followed after they came forward.

Former faculty members talk of the pressures to be loyal to the institution. It’s suggested that universities avoid going to the authorities because police reports create a public record of the incident. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic provides an explanation for why colleges might protect fraternities, whose members form strong institutional bonds and become a source of future donations. Athletes, who according to the percentages cited constitute a disproportionate number of assaulters, seem to get special protection, perhaps because athletics are a major source of money. A partial list of universities whose presidents declined to be interviewed is buried in the end credits.

The police don’t fare much better. According to the movie, only 26% of rape reports lead to arrest, the sort of flyby statistic that cries out for more elaboration. (Most stats helpfully include citations.) Late in the film, the movie charges that an officer and prosecutor’s loyalty to their alma mater’s football team may have prevented them from aggressively pursuing a case.

The doc supplements the interviews with some startling graphics. One image juxtaposes the number of sexual-assault complaints at various universities with the lack of expulsions. A later montage, framed as a mock advertisement, lists the penalties assessed against students found guilty by their universities, with asterisks and the words “actual sanction” emblazoned below the punishments.

The film also interviews experts like clinical psychologist David Lisak and “Confronting Campus Rape” author Danielle Dirks. The absence of testimony from the accused is an understandable omission (though as the Rolling Stone article’s rollback indicates, that can be a problem). Most go unnamed, though Florida State U.’s Erica Kinsman recounts her allegations against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, which have already been written about. This sort of doc is a legal minefield, but it never seems to sacrifice urgency or cogency, although like Dick’s previous films, it may irk those who prefer a wonkier, less button-pushing approach.

Tech credits, showcasing skillful editing of an impressive amount of material, are consistent with the director’s usual polish, though the inclusion of an original song from Diane Warren and Lady Gaga — with the unfortunate title “Till It Happens to You” — seems tacky.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Hunting Ground'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 23, 2015. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A Radius-TWC release, presented with CNN Films, Regina K. Scully, Paul Blavin, in association with Canal Plus, Cuomo Cole Prods., Minerva Prods., Impact Partners, Ro*co Films. Produced by Amy Ziering. Executive producers, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Nicole Boxer, Jacki Zehner, Sarah Johnson, Barbara Dobkin, Ted Dintersmith, Elizabeth Hazard, Julie Lepinard, 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. Investigative producer, Amy Herdy. Co-producers, Bonnie Greenberg, Nicole Ehrlich.

Crew

Directed, written by Kirby Dick. Camera (color, HD), Thaddeus Wadleigh, Aaron Kopp; editors, Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra, Kim Roberts; music, Miriam Cutler; music supervisors, Bonnie Greenberg, Christy Gerhart; sound, Richard King.

With

Annie E. Clark, Andrea Pino, Kamilah Willingham, April Powell-Willingham, Erica Kinsman, Tom Seeberg, Sofie Karasek, Rachel Hudak, Caroline Heldman, Danielle Dirks, David Lisak, John Foubert, Diane L. Rosenfeld, Caitlin Flanagan.

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  1. Bliz says:

    Too bad the filmmakers bend truths and interview questionable people with vendettas and attention seeking. One of them that accused winston said a bloody condom found in her room was winstons when it turned out to dna of another guy she “forgot” she had sex with. She was a known drunk and pomiscuous partier. Winston was found guilty of touching but no evidence of anything else and was banned a year despite the film saying he wasnt punished by harvard after a full on in depth investigation and grand jury verdict based on evidence. They also claim he was later a sexual offender when winston hasnt actually committed any other assaults so it makes it seem the university did nothing and led to being a repeat offender as a result. There are a few other cases with gaps as well. Either way the film doesnt even interview men or accused or uni heads. This would have not only given more light on the culture and the other literally 50% sides of story, but would be the proper thing to do by any documentarian studying an issue explicitly involving both sexes. Even male advocates for victims, or witnesses, or first hand experience in frat culture, or admitted offenders would have enhanced their argument and severity of the problems; but, instead, they opted for creating a binary shallow film lacking in both ethical and factual responsibilities in how they portray the issues and stories.

    • Bliz says:

      On a personal level ive witnessed just as many drunken sluts make dumb consensual mistakes as ive witnessed bad guys taking advantage. Ive also witnessed false accusations and exagerations if a girl loses face or feels used by an alpha male they wanted. And ive witnessed guys brag and lie about sleeping with a woman when they didnt or spread lies a girl is a slut. Many girls are violated but feel guilty when they know they made dumb choices so later they broaden defkkk nitiok n of feeling victimized so they get surveyed and say theyve been sexually assauk ted. These supposed stats that 1/5 girls are assaulted doesnt ever differentiate a girl who once in her life was felt up dancing at a club versus a girl that was raped–so the very definition of sexual assault as some broad violation obfiscates the continuum of varying types and contexts of assaults in addition to subjective lies or exagerations or hypocrisies or gaps etc. But most sexual assaults are a case by case context. This film sensationalizes and exagerates.

  2. Qreua says:

    I think we all want to believe that rape culture is not real, and that your daughters, sisters, girlfriends, cousins and friends are safe when they go away to college. We also like to think that if something does happen…justice will be served. This movie proves that we have a false sense of security. By claiming this isn’t a big issue…we can turn the other cheek and ignore the fact that it can happen to you. Take off the blind fold. My school dispersed reports of 3 rapes in campus housing just this past year via email to all students, however..if you look at the stats for the year on our school webpage, it says that zero assaults have occurred and our only crime on this campus is bike theft. As for the Jameis case, the school dismissed it simply because he wouldn’t testify. What the hell is that? And how can he convicted when no one decided to examine the girls evidence until a year later. A university football coach himself was quoted saying “rape is inevitable, mine-as-well enjoy it” And there was a testimony from a perpetrator in the film…however how many rapist want to go on camera and admit that they are predators. My campus alone has a fraternity that has a declared RAPE ROOM! This room has no windows and the wall are painted black, and there is a mattress on the floor. So yes, rape on college campuses is an issue. Just because you didn’t like the film, doesn’t mean that what they are saying doesn’t have a ring of truth.

    • Ryan says:

      This movie is as much fiction as star wars.

      Two of the “main” women in this “documentary” have been shown to be liars:
      Emma (Mattress girl) and Kamirah (the black girl)

      Just google it.

  3. Wills says:

    I HIGHLY encourage EVERYONE to actually go look at the facts of the case that Kamilah mentions. You’ll quickly find that she is a flat our liar, fabricating stories to serve her personal agenda as a leader in female rights while she ruins another human beings reputation and life. I agree, there is a SERIOUS problem with sexual assault on college campuses, I’m not arguing with that..but she is a disturbed individual and certainly should not be the face of this movement.

    It is really sad and goes to show how much license you can have in directing movies and making fiction appear like truth.

  4. Reason says:

    There is no excuse for propaganda but to serve hatred and fear.

  5. Pete says:

    “The absence of testimony from the accused is an understandable omission”

    No it isn’t.

    If the documentary is a truly objective investigation then the film makers should feel compelled to gather evidence from both sides. Even making an attempt to get the accused to tell their side and being rebuffed would be acceptable, but as it stands this ‘documentary’ is clearly one-sided pandering to rape culture hysteria. Of course activists love it: agitprop like this helps raise a false awareness of the non-existent problem so they can hold onto their power to bully, browbeat, and try the accused in the kangaroo courts of public opinion.

  6. Jo Oubland says:

    I can’t wait to see it.

  7. Diane says:

    I agree with several of the comments. This issue IS a true issue. I live near Atlanta. There are SEVERAL big universities in that city. The news reports an assault on a female student regularly. But, this film made a grave error by including Erika Kinsman. Her allegations have all been dismissed and proven wrong. I’ve followed all the reports and testimony. The accused was declared multiple times not guilty. He’s easily suffered as much from all the media lynching. Even after all the cases against him are gone, this film drags him through the mud. Just because a woman gives an account simply is not proof enough that the man is guilty. There’s due process. She went through that process several different times. It’s OVER. Jameis has been found not guilty. Next story. Hopefully one with truth.

  8. Kevin says:

    Whether you like how FSU handled the Jameis Winston situation, is it fair how his name has been dragged through the mud? They omit the fact that Ms. Erica Kinsman has changed her story several times and that the Tallahassee Police Dept, the State Attorney’s Office, a former Florida Supreme Court Justice and even the Governor’s office did not want to pursue action against Winston due to her inconsistencies. She talks about the abuse she endured, but this “documentary” leaves out the abuse Winston and countless other accused men receive by the public at large whether guilty or not. It is quite pathetic the little value we put on a man’s happiness or well being. You say “what if it was your daughter?”. Well what if it was your son being raked through the coals and having his life destroyed over a false allegation?

  9. Lucas says:

    Is this the same old shinola from the usual suspects? Did they interview a single one of the accused? I mean right after the Rolling Stone debacle and they don’t even change their M.O.? Amazing.

    The latest study commissioned by President Obama’s Dept of Justice found that just 0.03 in five women get raped on campus. Less than 1%. And they’re still trotting out this one in five nonsense and expect us not to notice the emperor has no clothes?

    • Deb says:

      You have to conclude that by introducing Erica Kinsman in this documentary, Mr. Dick made a choice between salacious on one hand and fair on the other. He chose salacious without regard for the record which exists and has been examined numerous times. For anyone who has read the police reports, The State Attorneys report, the medical records including the lab tests for drugs or alcohol and listened to the audio taped interviews with Kinsman’s friends, the continued assault on Jameis Winston seems calculated to extract the largest settlement from the university. Why hasn’t she sued Jameis Winston for future earnings? Because it would be the FIRST time she would actually have to testify under oath. I notice in the documentary she continues with the “drugged by Jameis” line in spite of the fact that lab testing showed no drugs present and very little alcohol. Friends of Kinsman testified it was another gentleman at the club who gave her the drink. Kinsman removed exculpatory evidence from her phone, part of which the police were able to retrieve. Along with her several different stories of the events, you can understand why the police would explain to her that this would be a difficult case to pursue.

  10. Alex says:

    What about false accusations? “Rolling Stone” mag and Lea Dunham have made asses of themselves in the past few weeks, and lets not forget the Duke U rape scandal. Is it possible this is NOT as big a deal as they’re trying to make it out to be? If only 26% of reports lead to arrests then are the other 74% false reports?

    • We have only to look at the case of Hannah Graham, Morgan Harrington and perhaps others to see the seriousness of colleges covering up rapes. The accused in these two awful murders was a football player at two colleges years before these murders, and left those colleges after he was accused of rape at each school. There is another rape victim who lived and he is charged in that brutal crime. If only the colleges had gone further to investigate or to turn the accusations over to authorities way back when…

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