Sundance 2015: Kirby Dick's Damning New Doc 'The Hunting Ground'
by Alex Billington
January 24, 2015
Let me say this upfront because I must confess: it is very hard to analyze a documentary on its technical merits when it is so excruciatingly emotional. The first documentary world premiere I caught at Sundance 2015 was The Hunting Ground, the new doc from acclaimed filmmaker Kirby Dick (of This Film Is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War). This is such an important documentary that two senators were in the audience, but it's also important because it's showing the truth in the face of resistance, it's allowing us to actually hear from and listen to real people. The Hunting Ground is a film that explores the epidemic (yes) of campus rape occurring for decades at the most prestigious universities in America. And it's appalling.
The Hunting Ground opens with an amusing "welcome to college" montage, reminding us that this is when everyone is supposed to go out and become an adult, or at least start to become an adult. But really that's just not the case for everyone. The documentary relies heavily on statistics and studies, often cutting to a shocking number that slowly fades in and out for dramatic effect. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But where the film really finds its footing, and thus the inspirational drive behind it, is in the survivors of campus rape. They speak up, they speak out, they're courageous, and they band together to help each other. They want a better world, just like
all most of us do, and are trying to shine a light on these problems in hopes that we can fix them. They're not trying to make us all feel bad, they just want to put an end to this.
There are various sections of the doc, where it first explores why colleges are covering up this epidemic, how many of them downplay incidents and even encourage victims to blame themselves and move on. Eventually it drifts into the college sports angle, but what they keep cutting back to is a quote that: "not every athlete is bad, in fact most of them are not, it's a very small percentage that are" and those that are perpetrators are likely to be repeat offenders. They even have statistics to back this up, and multiple reports from different women at the same college. The same goes for fraternities - not every member of every fraternity nor is every fraternity bad and thus worth shuttering, but there are some that have repeat incidents and are known as bad places, yet nothing is done about them. It's sad to discover the reason why (hint: money & prestige).
The film has a number of sad, infuriating, depressing moments, yet there is a hopeful side to it that makes it stand out. Along the way the filmmakers met Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two survivors who together figured out how to report their school, and bring media attention to the problem even while the university (and other despicable people) are threatening them. These two are the real stars of The Hunting Ground, and the film becomes more and more beautiful as it focuses on their endeavors. They persist, they never give up, they travel all over the country, they listen to other survivors, they speak up, they are amazing. I want to support them and I feel like the most I can do, to start, is to keep saying how important this doc is to watch.
As was evident in footage shown throughout the documentary, this is a controversial subject. The second half of the film focuses on one particular athlete who was so important to his university that they blatantly ignored multiple complaints about assault all because he was their star football player. It was disgusting to watch footage of university presidents saying "we are doing everything we can" and seeing clear evidence that they are not. The list of colleges where assaults get covered up is astonishing. It made me want to throw a chair. But that's why this is a great film, it riles you up, reminds you that there is hope out there, and that it all comes down to listening, believing, and supporting each other. More info: thehuntinggroundfilm.com.
Alex's Sundance 2015 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing