Of all the bloodcurdling stories told in Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground,” it may be the one expressed by Kamilah Willingham, a student at Harvard, that is most disturbing. The truly chilling part isn’t to hear Willingham speak of how she was drugged and raped while with a friend, as horrific an act as it is, or even her reaction to it after it was over, but rather to hear her describe the male attacker calmly explaining to her at the time what he was doing as he was doing it once she regained consciousness, as if the man thought he was doing nothing wrong. Surely, the attacker didn’t know of the reams of statistics that Dick provides throughout the film about a collegiate system that favors the perpetrators far more than the victims, but the implication is clear he didn’t have to. It’s simply an accepted part of campus culture.
“The Hunting Ground” is Dick’s followup to “The Invisible War” and while that look at the rape epidemic in the U.S. military carried considerable confidence for a subject on which so little is reported, his latest actually has a swagger. Perhaps this is due to the efficacy of the previous film, which led to new legislative efforts to change the way sexual assault cases are handled, but also because “The Hunting Ground” has an unfortunately larger sample size to draw from. At the end of the new film, there’s an estimate that 100,000 students will be the victim of a sexual assault in the next school year and it is an unabashedly a piece of advocacy, leaving audiences with a set of principles to fight for through various social media channels that appear onscreen before the end credits roll.
Yet Dick has made something too overwhelmingly powerful to be dismissed as a feature-length public service announcement, taking the sad fact that the hundreds of women from across the country and even a few men who appear in the film share a similar story of how they were attacked first sexually, then by the authorities they decided to tell if they reported it at all, using the commonalities to form both a undeniable consensus and a strong narrative backbone. What remains truly astonishing about Dick’s films remains how he and, as with “The Invisible War,” producer Amy Ziering draw out their subjects, not only making them comfortable enough to speak about such a traumatic event in their life, but to make them multi-dimensional rather than defined by their experience. Never once do you think of any of young interviewees as victims, even as they describe all of the myriad ways the system has failed them.
Cleverly, the film seizes upon the story of Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two students at the University of North Carolina who are introduced in much the same way as the film first presents any of its subjects, but soon transcend their initial sitdown interviews, literally getting up and doing something by filing a Title IX-based complaint that they discover may be their only viable form of recourse. Their activism, which eventually takes them to campuses from coast to coast, propels the film forward while Dick lays out the evidence for universities for bearing at least some responsibility for creating an environment where sexual assault is common, meticulously showing why they’re loathe to acknowledge let alone deal with such cases. An infuriating portrait of institutions prioritizing economic incentives over basic human decency, the film offers testimony from a number of current and former school officials who speak to the fear of colleges to challenge fraternities and athletic programs that breed a sizable number of sexual assault suspects yet bring in the biggest bucks to the school, either while in school or as alumni donors.
Although one might guess “The Hunting Ground” could be too dark given its subject matter, there are places where it flirts with actually being a little too light. At one point, the filmmakers seem almost gleeful as “The Hunting Ground” incredulously throws up colorful graphics to show the lax penalties many schools have for the rare occasion someone is punished for sexual assault. But Dick finds the right balance between engaging and informative, able to convey complex statistics with clean, potent visuals. This is evident from the very first stat the film presents, citing a study from 2000 that between 16 to 20 percent of female undergrads are sexually assaulted during their college years with a credit from 2000, then showing that fact’s unchanging nature in listing the several studies since that have confirmed it.
There is great power in numbers in every imaginable way for Dick, who with editors Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra and Kim Roberts, structures the film in such a way it accumulates the explosiveness of a powder keg. By the time “The Hunting Ground” eventually builds towards naming the perpetrator of a sexual assault who most people will actually know, it has succeeded at something far greater by letting the audience come to know all the brave women and men it gets to come forward with their stories, putting a human face on this most inhumane of crimes.