“The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape, is as unsubtle and unsettling as a hammerlock. It’s also as effective. Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who tackled sexual assault in the military in “The Invisible War” (2012), amass statistic upon statistic, horror story upon horror story, to present a case that’s damning and seemingly inarguable. At one point, Dick’s camera settles on a US map with a pin for each college in which at least one victim of rape or assault has been documented by the filmmakers. The thing’s a porcupine, testament to a national pandemic.
But “The Hunting Ground” would be merely a screed of numbers and outrage without the heroes at its center: the young women — in the dozens — who come forward to tell their stories, pushing past shame and shedding their anonymity. Their confusion and hurt is palpable; their anger, toward their assailants and toward college administrations who will do anything to protect their brands and alumni donations, scalds the screen.
Two women, both from the University of North Carolina, emerge as unlikely crusaders. Andrea Pino was a freshman at a party when, she says, a sophomore took her to a bathroom, slammed her head on the floor tiles, and raped her. She was a virgin. “Why am I not screaming?” Pino remembers thinking. “You just stay there and hope you don’t die.” Another incoming freshman, Annie E. Clark, says she was raped before classes even started; when she reported it to a college administrator, she was told to think of it “as a football game: If you look back, what would you have done differently?” This may be why as much as 88 percent of campus sexual assaults go unreported.
“The Hunting Ground” tours the country, piling on first-hand stories of physical and bureaucratic abuse. Numerous studies have found that 1 in 5 women will be assaulted during their college experience; the percentage of false claims, 2 percent to 8 percent, is the same as for other crimes. The institutions namechecked in the film run from coast to coast, from high to low: University of Virginia, Occidental, University of Tulsa, Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s, Berkeley, Wesleyan, Florida State, Swarthmore, Yale. In Massachusetts alone, we hear from students at Harvard Law, Tufts, Amherst, Emerson, and Brandeis, among others.
Where is this wave of sexual violence coming from? “The Hunting Ground” takes pains early on to stress that a sliver of campus men are responsible. Actually, the statistic cited is that 8 percent of men in college are responsible for 90 percent of all assaults. Dick interviews one repeat predator, his face blurred out, as he describes how easy it is to be a serial rapist given the prevalence of alcohol and new students. “The number of victims is endless,” he says.
The documentary goes after the frat mentality of booze and entitlement — an easy target when you’ve got a national organization like SAE (“Sexual Assault Expected,” as it’s known on virtually every campus) and footage of idiot bros chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” The more “The Hunting Ground” broadens its scope to take on the larger culture, though, the less effective it is in focusing on the scourge of this specific subject. There are at least five other documentaries in here (including one on gay campus rape) and Dick tries to juggle them all.
Even so, areas go unexamined. Stories of weak or no punishments handed out to those found guilty of sexual crimes by college judicial boards — $25 fines, making a poster, getting expelled after graduation, being made to work a rape hot line — are enough to make your head explode, but the film has little to no interest in where the new rules of engagement drawn up by baffled universities start infringing on students’ civil rights or even common sense. The line between on-campus judicial structures and the outside criminal justice system remains hazy here, if only because many colleges want to keep it that way. And while a number of educational institutions are finally making good-faith efforts to deal with sexual assault — in part because they have to — “The Hunting Ground” doesn’t want to hear it.
Why should it when the movie has stories to tear your heart out, like the one told by Tom Seeberg, father of Saint Mary’s College student Lizzy Seeberg, who killed herself in 2010. The police claimed they couldn’t locate her alleged assailant; he was on the field at a Notre Dame football game. Or Erica Kinsman, who had the misfortune to get roofied and raped (she claims, compellingly) by Florida State’s star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Kinsman was hounded off campus; Winston, cleared in a campus hearing, is considered 2015’s top NFL draft pick. The police officer in charge of the case, a Florida State graduate who did security work for the Seminole Boosters, never bothered to collect a DNA sample.
Yet there is hope, or at least useful anger, in “The Hunting Ground.” Dick keeps circling back to UNC students Pino and Clark, who in 2013 filed a Title IX charge against the university, with the result that the US Department of Education has opened an investigation into how UNC handles sexual assault cases. The film follows the two as they road trip across the country from campus to campus, crashing in dorm rooms and sleeping in cars as they build a national network of victims who have become weary of being twice abused, once in body and once in spirit. Through their efforts, Title IX complaints have been filed against 90 colleges and universities.
Still. The movie needs to be seen and discussed by everyone within shouting distance of the college experience: parents, students (of both genders), administrators, alumni, coaches — the list goes on. And while “The Hunting Ground” is excellent at hammering a viewer with facts and figures, stories and sisterhood, some underlying ills of our society go unaddressed. How women are allowed to be sexualized by everyone except themselves (because then they’re “asking for it”). How a woman calling attention to such matters risks being threatened with rape and murder by anonymous Internet cretins. How our culture sells little girls “Cinderella” and little boys conquest until they’re all grown up, whereupon they’re sold, respectively, romantic comedies and porn. How emotional intimacy can be found everywhere online while vanishing from the physical world.
“The Hunting Ground” does a fine and fierce job of portraying campus sexual assault as a national disease. It never dares to suggest that it’s a symptom.