Published Mar 12, 2015Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground returns to the topic he covered in 2013's Oscar-nominated The Invisible War: sexual assault and how institutions fail survivors. The Hunting Ground feels like a companion piece to Dick's earlier film, which looked at rape in the American military and the ways in which assaults are covered up. Rather than feeling like a retread of a similar subject matter, The Hunting Ground is a shattering examination of rape on college campuses, a raw and angry look at the way universities engender environments where rape has become normalized and perpetrators go unpunished. The film's message is clear from its haunting opening moments, as Dick assembles a home-video collage of students receiving their university acceptance letters, set to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance": these institutions only care about money, not the safety of their students.
The film employs a structure intended to empower the survivors as they share the stories of their assaults and subsequent aftermaths, crosscutting to highlight the similarities between the stories; here, Dick and producer Amy Ziering (who conducts the interviews and is the only voice we hear other than the interview subjects) construct a damning critique of the American university system. From the grey-area university politics that allow frat houses to continue even after multiple reports of assault, to the ways in which male athletes go praised and unpunished in order to maintain million-dollar industries, the film paints a mosaic of these first-hand accounts to show how university institutions, the media and society work against survivors, blaming victims and covering up sexual assault.
Dick and Ziering construct the film as a sobering argument against the contemporary media machine that denies the epidemic of assault on campus at every turn. Structured less like an essay and more like a personal narrative with generous amounts of research, the film moves from topic to topic, all in service of its central compelling argument. By the end, no stone is left unturned and many major academic institutions has chilling statistics revealed against them: over 100,000 women will be sexually assaulted on campus next year; 40% of campuses reported no sexual assaults; repeat offenders commit an average of six assaults. These endless, shocking stats run the risk of having a numbing effect, as similar findings are levelled against universities across the United States over the course of the film's 90-minute runtime. But Dick and Ziering are careful to make sure there is a face and a name for every number they encounter, understanding the importance of the personal stakes at work here. The film's generous and genuine sense of empathy is its best asset.
Most important is the film's real desire to produce change, to stir the viewer into action and facilitate progress in their community. Too many contemporary documentaries fall victim to the "cause doc" aesthetic, an impersonal essay that feels more like a YouTube video than a film and designed to make the viewer feel like a better neoliberal citizen now that they've become more informed about a cause-of-the-week (usually these films end with some sort of hashtag like #changenow, like last year's embarrassing Fed Up). In contrast, The Hunting Ground desperately insists on producing real change in the viewer and using the film medium to create a more active political subject. The film uses an exhausting amount of media examples to show how society fosters a toxic rape culture, from TV talk-show clips to university advertisements, hopefully allowing the viewer to see just how widespread this problem is. Much like his last film, Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground is a powerful, must-see documentary.