A gutsy and accomplished American director and producer, Amy Ziering has been working hand-in-hand with writer-director Kirby Dick on three politically- and socially-engaged documentaries: The Tribeca-premiering “Outrage” about closeted gay politicians who vote against same-sex marriage, the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War” about sexual assaults in the military and “The Hunting Ground,” a gripping three-years-in-the-making investigation into the rampant phenomenon of college rapes.
Shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, the controversial documentary world premiered at Sundance and prompted heated debates, campus protests as well as a probe launched by the Department of Education on multiple universities throughout the United States. The doc has already won the Producers Guild of America’s 2016 Stanley Kramer Award and is nominated for the Producers Guild of America’s top documentary award.”The Hunting Ground,” released in the States by Radius-TWC on Feb. 27, has also been applauded for its original song “Til It Happens to You,” which was written by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren.
What got you interested in this issue of sexual assaults on college campuses?
We had just done “The Invisible War” and we were showing it on campuses. After each screening, students kept coming to us saying “It happened to me on this campus” and shared their experiences. Then we started getting emails from kids who had seen “The Invisible War” from across the country. Initially it was not on our radar as we usually move from issue to issue, but we were compelled to start investigating this topic.
How did you proceed to convince people to talk on the record?
We interviewed many people who had already spoken out, a lot of them were off-the-record. They had seen “The Invisible War” and they felt they could talk without being judged. And a good number of people talked to us because someone else did.
“The Hunting Ground” has a cinematic, dramatic dimension as we follow the journey of Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, a pair of students who turned into activists and filed a Title IX complaint against the University of North Carolina, prompting a nationwide debate on sexual assault. How did you choose those protagonists and how did you work on the dramatic structure of the film?
We didn’t engineer anything, we just followed characters and from the get go we talked about the five main issues. We followed Andrea and Annie for about two years. Andrea was a junior at the beginning. We were following other stories from around the country and we were shooting with a eye on structure, thinking about what would be the arc of this story. We were following people until the last couple months and worked out the definite structure in the editing room.
The film also features testimonies from men who were victim of sexual assaults. How important was it to show that this issue is not gender-related?
We felt it was important to show men and women. For men it’s often harder to speak up because there is a social stigma associated with rape. Many male victims were feeling ashamed.
One reproach that’s been made against “The Hunting Ground” is that you hardly talk to perpetrators of sexual assaults. In fact, you only show one. Did you try approaching some?
Yes, and they all declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to us.
What does this issue of college rapes say about U.S. society?
That we have a very long way to go with regard to our understanding, investigation and adjudication of sexual assault crimes in our society; and that the ways in which we treat victims of these crimes reflects harmful cultural prejudices about women and grave misconceptions about the true nature of these crimes.
What are the cultural and social implications of this phenomenon?
Huge and profound. Dozens of studies show that these crimes are not only all too common but that prosecutions for them are all too rare. This leaves society profoundly damaged – as we have women and men who’ve experienced these crimes traumatized not only by the crimes themselves, but by their community’s indifferent or punitive response. And since a high percentage of rapes are caused by repeat offenders, our failure as a society to apprehend perpetrators leaves criminals at large who are savvy and experienced, and able to continue to commit these crimes with impunity.
What makes college rapes different from other sex crimes?
They are different in that college campuses provide perfect storm conditions for these crimes to occur as there is a young transient population living in close quarters and socializing frequently which gives assailants easy access to victims and ample opportunity. And since most campuses are misinformed about the nature of these crimes and have poor investigation and adjudication processes in place, it’s easy for repeat offenders to commit these crimes. It’s why we are seeing such epidemic numbers for these crimes on our campuses.
By uncovering those rape cases you exposed some powerful institutions and people. Where did you draw the line?
Kirby and I have a history of taking on powerful institutions. We’ve previously made films that have investigated the Catholic Church and it’s clergy abuse problem, the MPAA and it’s flawed and secretive ratings system, and, in our previous film “The Invisible War”, we broke the story of rape in the U.S. military.
But this is the first time we’ve been the target of major disinformation campaigns by the institutions we’ve investigated. To be clear – the film is completely accurate and we stand behind all the reporting in our film. What’s notable is that despite some of the recent misinformed headlines that claim our film is “controversial,” the truth is that not one individual or institution has asked us to retract one fact presented in our film. The controversy has been completely manufactured.
Where are the attacks on the film coming from?
From what we’ve been able to assess, the attacks on the film have been instigated by parties affiliated with the institutions that our film rightfully and accurately critiques. We know of one university that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a communications firm to attack us. And Jameis Winston’s attorneys actually tried to stop CNN from broadcasting the film by threatening to sue them. To their credit, CNN stood up to these threats and showed the film.
But when documentaries bring to light uncomfortable truths about powerful people and institutions it’s not unusual for them to wage aggressive campaigns to silence their critics. This certainly happened with “The Inconvenient Truth,” “Food Inc.,” and “Gasland,” the documentary about fracking. And that’s what we’re seeing now with “The Hunting Ground.”
What did you find the most disturbing while working on this investigation?
The disturbing irony is that these institutions are doing exactly what our film shows universities have done for the past 50 years: attack survivors and whistle blowers to protect their own reputations and funding at the expense of their students’ safety and well-being. It’s been kind of chilling and odd to watch this same playbook played out now against us.
What’s also been disconcerting is the way some in the media will write about these attacks on the film without doing due diligence to determine if there is any validity to the attacks. It’s similar to what we saw happening in our country with regard to climate change, cigarette smoking, and, most recently, concussive head injuries in the NFL.
As we all now know coal and oil companies hired pundits, PR firms, and scientists to make it seem that the research on climate change was questionable – when in fact it was resoundingly reliable and irrefutable. This fake “controversy” around climate change has cost our planet and future dearly. We are seeing the same thing now happening with this issue – writers and bloggers, often from right wing publications, questioning the research that clearly shows high rates of sexual assault on college campuses. By spreading doubt it allows the public to convince itself that the problem isn’t serious, and that it doesn’t require our urgent attention. All this does is harm us as a society — it re-victimizes victims and protects criminals. Instead of wrongly attacking the messenger – let’s attack the problem.
There is a great deal of humor and irony in “The Hunting Ground.” What purpose does it serve?
That’s an interesting question. The comedy is dark, so I guess it acts not just as a respite but also as a continuation of the critique. The humor mostly comes from the absolute and horrific absurdity of some of the facts – the injustices are so extreme and over-the-top that they are laughable.
What do you think sets you apart from other contemporary American documentary filmmakers?
Kirby and I make films about contemporary injustices that have been covered up, often for decades. We look for subjects where not only has a film not been made about them, but where there often isn’t even a major book out on the topic. Another difference is that Kirby comes from a contemporary art background and I come from the field of philosophy – and our films often reflect these disciplines and interests.
The documentaries you’ve made so far were politically or socially engaged, but if you were to make an entirely different, non-political film, what would it be about?
That’s a great question. If it was a documentary I would make one on some of the artists and thinkers I most admire – I’d love to make one on Karl Marx’s writing which is so brilliant and hasn’t really been engaged with cinematically, or applied to our current state of affairs in the way that it should be. If it was a feature it would be a narrative or comedy directed and written by a woman, and featuring culturally diverse women of all ages who are allowed to look the way real women do at all ages. I am so over seeing women play roles that speak only to a very narrowly defined and imagined heterosexual male’s vision of what a women is/should be.
What projects are you working on? How many documentary feature projects are you currently developing and what topics are you looking to explore going forward?
We are currently shooting one documentary about an issue that the public has been kept completely in the dark about and have two others in development.