Documentarian Kirby Dick’s 2012 Oscar-nominated "The Invisible War" was a searing look at the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. "The Hunting Ground" serves as something of a companion piece, insofar as it also explores the institutional dysfunction that leads judicial powers to turn a blind eye on victims of abuse.
In this case, setting his sights on the nationwide dilemma of neglected rape cases on college campuses, Dick delivers a scattered overview of the problem through the voices of many young women who struggle through it. Though it doesn’t reveal much new information, "The Hunting Ground" casts a wide net and effectively consolidates a variety of perspectives on its issue to deliver a stirring call to action.
Though much of the movie barrels ahead with unsettling testimonials from rape victims and upsetting statics of university inaction, "The Hunting War" begins with a cheery montage of students celebrating their college admission letters. It’s a canny opener that strikes a provocative contrast with the dark events that meet any number of young women once they leave the home. From there, Dick unleashes the first of many numerical details to ground the movie in hard facts, beginning with the revelation that 16 – 20% of college women are victims of sexual assault.
But it’s less the scale the problem than its breadth that strikes a truly alarming note: Over the course of the movie, Dick uncovers countless incidents at major universities — all of which have a mutual interest in covering up the complaints for the sake of their reputations. The offending schools include no less than Harvard, where one student recounts how her assailant was expelled after she complained but found his way back into matriculation one semester later.
Even more incendiary is the case of Florida University football star Jameis Winston, a top candidate for 2015 NFL draft, whose victim was subjected to public shaming as the school glossed over her complaints for the sake of the rising athlete’s career.
With these case studies, Dick offers a primer on the movie’s subject. "The Hunting Ground" wanders, but its numerous voices bring plenty of focus to the subject. The director even manages to land the testimonial of a convicted rapist who shows remorse after jail time — with his face blurred out — in a considered attempt to complicate the number of perspectives on the issue. Likewise, psychologists and concerned parents also weigh in, though no school officials appear on camera to defend the weak disciplinary action on display. But failure to take charge, seemingly at the mercy of maintaining a good reputation among donors, looms large at the center of the movie.
The result is a collage-like narrative constructed, above all else, to advocate for broader awareness of its topic. To that end, it’s a rousing success, though at times the project drags from a repetitive quality as it returns to variations on the same point about campuses’ self-interested tendencies.
Even so, it never loses touch with its infuriating focus, whether it’s elaborating on the post-traumatic stress experienced by numerous victims or the ridiculous leniency given to college fraternities; collectively, each of these observations contribute to the sense that campus rape remains one of the nation’s biggest problems — largely because so many colleges underreport their incidents.
Dick finds one focal point for pushing this bleak overview in an inspiring direction: A group of students at the University of North Carolina who come together to support victims and gain the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which launches its own independent investigation. Their triumphant project sets the stage for a closing credit that urges audiences to join the effort, and there’s no question that the movie hits this note with marked calculation. Concluding with the statistic that 100,000 college women are projected to face sexual abuse this year, "The Hunting Ground" is at its best when it stops dwelling on variations of the problem and points toward a solution.
"The Hunting Ground" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. Radius-TWC will release the film later this year.