The Hunting Ground

Posted by Joel Copling on April 9, 2015

Here is a documentary that uses its rather banal style to its own advantage. There are a lot of talking heads in "The Hunting Ground," just as many shots of people looking plaintive, and even more montages about facts and statistics. But director Kirby Dick, for whom the topic of systemic, institutional sexual assault is now a go-to after 2012's "The Invisible War" took the U.S. military to task, makes absolutely certain that those hallmarks of the format are present: The talking heads are survivors of sexual assault and have something to say, just as they have reason to look into space plaintively while sitting on benches. And the facts (often first-hand accounts of assault and the build-up to it from some pretty brave interviewees) and statistics are often infuriating.

It opens on happy faces, though--those of young women and men being accepted into the university of their dreams (or, if not, then one of the many in which they were interested and to which they applied). The graduation theme music scores the rapid images of tears and squeals of joy, and commencement speeches by presidents of various universities entwine around each other, ending on a particularly ominous note of foreboding when one of them paraphrases the well-known mantra regarding Las Vegas to apply to college as a whole. It is here where the stories of rape and of sexual dominance begin, and before long, they start to run together.

That is perhaps the saddest part in all of this. Slight variations begin to blur when taking the sexual assault experience into account. They all usually begin with a party held at a fraternity house (A particular Greek chapter that featured in the news recently for another kind of infuriating reason receives its due diligence here) and end with assault. It's what happened to many of the subjects for interview here, such as one girl who, in a bit of entirely somber irony, was the victim of assault from a man who, moments before, had likely saved her from that very act by another man who was following her around the Potbelly's in which she dined with friends during Christmas break between semesters at Florida State University.

That perpetrator, it is worth noting, turned out to be the university's most promising quarterback, and it's telling that FSU's attitude toward the assault was so lackadaisical and irresponsible that even the detective in charge of the case was inspired by his alumnus status to warn the victim about pressing charges in a town so reliant upon college football for its reputation (When reports of this ballplayer's indiscretions make it to ESPN, the disgusting wastes of human behind the desk can only mourn this "sweet kid's" chances after the victim's gall to speak out). It's like this all over the country, with colleges offering programs to male students who are accused of rape but only providing blame toward victims who, they reason, should have handled the situation better or, at the very least, not worn short skirts. They are too keep quiet, because the alternative is a reputation built on crime.

The victim blaming is prevalent throughout a system that seems broken beyond repair (One girl, whose father is interviewed, ended her own life to avoid the shame of being "proven" wrong in court that would have been tipped in the attacker's favor), but there are those who speak out to the point of some platform for change. Two victims of assault connect through Twitter and shared experiences, find others brave enough to tell of their own, and form an online resistance through posing legislation and setting up press conferences as outlets for the ignored. The film lets these people have their say in such an unpreachy way that the lump-in-the-throat feeling of seeing them stand before the crowds and talk is almost overwhelming. The point is clear: This is a problem that is past metastasis and entering the realm of cultural normalcy. We have to act. "The Hunting Ground" is a polemic, and why shouldn't it be?

Film Information

A documentary directed by Kirby Dick.

Rated PG-13 (disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, language).

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on February 27, 2015.