It is hard to not react emotionally to a film like The Hunting Ground. The filmmakers–Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering–openly state that the film is meant to tell the stories of those men and women who have survived rape. The stories are graphic and disturbing–of course they are, because rape is graphic and disturbing. When we watch survivor Andrea Pino describe the way her head was slammed into the ground while a man forced himself into her, it is supposed to make us cringe. Because once we have to acknowledge the terrors that are occurring, we can’t ignore them. This film is a place for women to tell their stories without being asked what they were wearing, what they were drinking, or if they said no. And as a college woman, I want to do everything I can to fully support them. So, I find it fascinating that much of the criticism and backlash rests on the premise that the film is too emotional. I find this emotion moving and I wholly support the way that the directors create a space where the victims have a voice. They acknowledge studies that show that only between 2-8% of reported sexual assaults are false.
One of the film’s most important goals is in defining sexual assault and rape. Ziering appeared on the Daily Show to say that campus sexual assaults are not “just a date gone bad, or a bad hook-up, or, you know, miscommunication.” Campus rape is “a highly calculated, premeditated crime, one typically committed by serial predators.” The thesis of the film then focuses on the idea that “colleges are primarily concerned about their reputation” and that “if a rape happens, they’ll do everything to distance themselves from it.” We see this so much in the case of FSU and the infamous Jameis Winston. We worshipped him at the sacrifice of Erica Kinsman. Because after all, Kinsman wasn’t giving us a national championship title or bringing in huge amounts of money to the school. What is the sacrifice of one for the benefit of the whole?
Yet, victim blaming seem to be the norm for all sexual assault cases–and not just the high profile ones–on college campuses. The Hunting Ground cites studies showing that 88% of rapes against women aren’t even reported. This is in part due to the way that victims are blamed for the violence perpetrated against them. Each victim had stories of being blamed–one Harvard student in the film tells of how it was suggested that she was leading him on and sending mixed signals. Students are then further discouraged from reporting to police to artificially keep campus rape numbers down. In fact, the film shows us statistics that 45% of colleges reported no sexual assault in 2012. Nobody wants to be seen as the school with a rape problem, but this is a nationwide college problem. Since the 1980s, studies repeatedly show that one in every four to five college women is sexually assaulted. Even more profound was a metaphor about shootings–would anyone send their child to a school where one in four of its students are shot? Absolutely not. Yet, that huge number of college women are experiencing sexual violence and so many are unaware of it.
In all this, it is important to acknowledge the backlash that comes with it. FSU’s own President John Thrasher released a statement that calls the film a “simplistic narrative that colleges and universities are to blame for our national sexual assault crisis.” Certainly, the filmmakers do a good bit of calling out and arguably, the whole film is leading up to what is used as an example of the epitome of the problem–FSU’s story. However, it seems that Thrasher’s entire response denies responsibility or rather chooses to ignore the ways in which the case of Kinsman and Winston was not handled properly. He writes of a thorough Title IX investigation, an independent judge and a conclusion that there was not enough evidence to support the allegations of sexual assault. But even before this was a high profile case, the Tallahassee Police Department did not properly investigate and The New York Time’s story, “A Star Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Investigation” made this evident.
Thrasher’s statement was further meant to explain why FSU turned down an invitation to participate in a panel discussion following the film. “This is a lost opportunity to have a full, fair and meaningful discussion on the national stage about the complex issue of sexual assault on college campuses,” he wrote. Perhaps this was the best time to have a discussion. With the huge numbers of people tuning in to watch, I would have loved to hear FSU speak up about the Winston case. FSU could have set a brave and powerful example by speaking out about the situation, acknowledging flaws with the Kinsman investigation and then explaining how we are fixing it. If FSU is indeed acting as a model for other universities, as President Thrasher claims, could he not have spoken publicly about the actions FSU has taken? His statement shows that we have “reviewed and improved [policies], made them easier to access on the Web, bolstered bystander training, increased sexual responsibility training for incoming freshmen and hired a full-time Title IX officer to handle the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault complaints.” If we are in fact making such strides, we shouldn’t be hiding.
There are notable flaws to be aware of when watching the film, though. Thrasher says one thing that is prevalent in the widespread criticism of the film, “It is inexcusable for a network as respected as CNN to pretend that the film is a documentary rather than an advocacy piece.” By definition, a documentary needs to tell the facts about people and events. While The Hunting Ground does provide statistics and specific examples to support its position, the filmmakers’ focus does not seem to be on complete accuracy or objectivity. Journalist Emily Yoffe writes a compelling piece that fleshes out the case of Kamilah Willingham, who appeared as one of the survivors in the film. Willingham’s story–one of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Brandon Winston after a night out at Harvard–differs from the story told in court and from her testimonials. Yoffe lays out all the variances between her stories and how the filmmakers don’t give Harvard credit for how they may have actually investigated quite aggressively. Brandon Winston’s defense created The Brandon Project that gives the public access to these same testimonials and documents. A large number of Harvard professors publicly refute the work, as well. Furthermore, none of the accused appear in the film. Dick and Ziering claim to have reached out to all of the relevant accused to offer them a voice in the piece, but were turned down by all. But in the case of at least Brandon Winston at Harvard, he wasn’t contacted until after the film aired at Sundance and when he referred them to his lawyer, his lawyer was never contacted.
Due to its biases, maybe we shouldn’t call the film a documentary, but rather a subjective advocacy piece. The bias served to draw more attention to the issues, but it can just as easily make viewers take it less seriously. This has certainly been the source of most of its criticism. No less, it is a very important work. I think that every current and upcoming college student should both watch the film and do their own research on its subject. The film still functions well as an outlet for the voices and stories of those who have experienced sexual violence and thus, shows us why sexual assault is an issue that we all need to be aware of. We should demand that our schools punish the perpetrators and provide resources to the survivors. The Hunting Ground has undeniably begun an important discussion that I hope continues until the problem is solved.
MEGAN DEMINT / Views Editor