Documentarian Kirby Dick’s fascination with sexual violence, prejudice, therapy and censorship in a number of different realms has continued to fuel much of his inquisitive, traumatizing filmography. Beginning with 1986’s “Private Practices: The Story of the Sex Surrogate,” which discusses the then-new development of sexual therapy and clinicians operating as sex surrogates, through to 2012’s soul-crushing, Academy Award-nominated “The Invisible War,” which detailed the uncomfortable reality of sexual abuse in the armed forces, Dick has always had a knack for mining out the truth from the maligned. His films are uncomfortable and upsetting, but they are affecting, and his newest, “The Hunting Ground,” while feeling like Kirby Dick again venturing into tight-mouthed territory only to discover some of the harshest realities about his chosen subject, still ends up being a rousing call to action and a thoroughly well researched expose on the epidemic of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses.
The film begins with an almost eerily funny montage of high school students, caught on candid camera, reading their acceptance letters to their dream colleges. The genuine enthusiasm escaping from each new collegiate is a feeling that many have felt before (I grandly remember my own acceptance into Emerson College less than five years ago) and surely one that many will feel for years to come. Jubilant music plays throughout this whole opening sequence, which doubles as opening credits, before a college president stands at a podium before a newly inaugurated freshman class and dryly says the line that I have pasted above this review. Immediately after, Dick comes to a full stop and begins the film he’s come here to tell, which is the complete opposite of jubilant or enthusiastic, but rather terribly, emotionally vile. The juxtaposition Dick puts in front of us in these opening moments is apparent before the sequence has even ended, but that doesn’t make it any less paralyzing. Once the testimonials begin, Dick has to do very little in terms of style to make his point clear. Campus rape is a subject that speaks for itself, and I applaud Dick for allowing those greatly affected by it to tell their stories without any major impart from him as an interview or as an investigative filmmaker.
“The Hunting Ground” is a strong entry from Dick, but he understands that this is not just his film. It’s not just his and producer Amy Ziering’s film, either. The legwork is really done by the men and women they have interviewed; the ones brave enough to sit in front of a camera and relive their experiences, detail by detail. And I’ll tell you something, no matter how prepared you may think you are for this film, nothing can prepare you for the horror ingrained into some of these peoples’ stories.
One of the earlier tales involves a law student attending Harvard Law. In an expected fashion, her story begins beyond ordinary. A good friend of hers and another close friend, this one male, ventured out into Harvard Square in Cambridge and took to some social drinking before deciding to reroute back to their apartments. But our subject recalls starting to feel flimsy and weak and was surprised that she was so deliriously intoxicated after what she remembered was only a few beers. However, her friend was feeling similarly, and it wasn’t until she came too, in a daze, hours upon hours later, inside her supposed male friend’s apartment, completely naked, that she realized what had happened. Her abuser was on top of her friend, who was still passed out and also naked, and without remorse, yet totally aware of the turgid crime he was presently committing, volunteered that knowledge to her. He didn’t really mind that he had just raped two young women; two women whom believed he was friend. But our subject’s life, and her other friend’s life, were changed forever.
Like I said, the testimonials are practically enough to get Dick’s story across, but it’s the way he’s able to take the fear, confusion, and anger of these students and translate them into visual ordeals that makes “The Hunting Ground” all the more effective. Constructed with ominous b-roll photography of various campuses and cityscapes; the previous story about the Harvard law student is intercut with wet, weary, scarily pretty shots of Harvard Square – a location I’ve traversed numerous times during my college career – and it’s here that the film’s title is proven. These are the locations where crimes like these become a standard; this is the ground where fellow students become the hunted. When Dick moves his lens over to larger campuses, like University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Southern California, and Florida State University – which sets the stage for the most jaw-dropping testimonial of them all – these postcard-like vistas of American academia become glazed in terror, and how Dick dismantles each and every one of them is even more staggering, mostly because it true public knowledge.
Where “The Hunting Ground” transforms from simply being just a widely cast net over an obviously rampant issue is when Kirby Dick turns to the institutional response. All of the stories we hear, all of the emotions we adopt, the boiling anger we feel for the situation is only worsened when we discover that the colleges, more times than not, want to defuse the situation by keeping it quiet. These ruined students, both male and female, go to the college with a problem and are swatted away like flies. The Harvard law student who raped those two girls was eventually expelled, but after they fought like hell to get the college to actually do something (of course, they first blamed the entire incident on the victims themselves; “Why didn’t you fight back?” “Did you provide mixed messages?” “Are you sure you weren’t too intoxicated?”). But, less than half a year later, the student was let back into the school.
Expulsions look nice on paper, but are still bad for the college’s image. Therefore, in the universities’ opinions, a second chance is a nice snuffer on both sides of the burning candle.
In almost every case, this is the response from the college; they turn it into a transparent situation, or let the victim deal with the trauma quietly in the confines of their own dorm, on a stretch of land where he or she no longer feels safe. The most heartbreaking situation involves a sexual abuse victim from Florida State University who was told by the investigating detective – an FSU alum, by the way – that she is embarking on a losing battle when she told him who her abuser was. When she went through with it anyway, her abuser was not prosecuted, and she was driven out of the school by the student body who called her “jealous,” “lonely,” “desperate,” and “attention seeking.” Not only did the school refuse to see justice served, as it would affect their reputation and their football team, but the rest of the massive state university refused to see the crime as what it was. Go Seminoles…?
Amidst these tragic truths, Dick does find a silver lining as a throughline, and while it might not combat the intense sadness that permeates through the film and the responsive anger, it does create a sense of reassurance, and eventually a plea to rise to the occasion. Two rape victims from UNC – Chapel Hill, one a freshman and one a senior (at the time of filming at least) have banded together to create a network that will stand against the institutional consistency of turning a blind eye. They’re movement has gained massive momentum as they’ve started to link up with other outspoken victims and, come the film’s emotional conclusion, they’ve struck up a promising relationship with the U.S. Department of Education which has officially launched it’s own private investigation (of which Emerson College is a part of). “The Hunting Ground” threatens to feel overly fragmented at times – jumping from one talking head to the next, attacking organized sports and the Greek system – but this counterpoint is Dick’s flicker of hope that he hopes will catch and spread.
“The Hunting Ground” repeatedly makes its point, but it never feels like it’s the hammer and you are the nail. It’s aggressive, but straight-faced, tasteful yet tragic. Unlike Dick’s triumphant “This Film is Not Yet Rated” which felt like a giant graffiti tag on the absurdist system of the MPAA, his “Invisible War” follow-up is sober and bleak. However, with the incorporation of the positive trajectory made by the Chapel Hill students, it points toward a possible solution. This is when the film is truly at its best. It meanders from testimonial to testimonial, data point to data point with finesse and ease, but by proposing a resolution, it ultimately navigates itself to an intensely moving finale capping what has been a finely chilling situational overview.
Review by Mike Murphy