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Reality Checks: How ‘The Hunting Ground’ Can Change the Conversation About Campus Rape

Reality Checks: How 'The Hunting Ground' Can Change the Conversation About Campus Rape

READ MORE:  Kirby Dick’s ‘The Hunting Ground’ is an Alarming Look at Campus Rape

After their 2012 activist powerhouse “The Invisible War,” about rape in the military, expectations are high for the potential cultural impact of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “The Hunting Ground.” But can their exposé about rape on college campuses follow in the successful footsteps of its predecessor? 

While “The Invisible War” was not a commercial hit, earning only $72,000 at the U.S. box office, it is widely credited as making an impact on policy changes at the highest level of the U.S. military. Shortly after “The Invisible War’s” Sundance premiere, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new initiatives to combat military sexual assault and several months later, there were widespread military dismissals for sexual misconduct. “The Invisible War” was shown at over 1,400 community screenings, in over 100 U.S. cities, was widely discussed on television and in the press, and garnered nearly 10,000 Twitter followers.
“The Hunting Ground” is starting off its campaign more like a platforming art-house film release than a political juggernaut. 
After opening in N.Y. and L.A. last weekend, where the film earned a solid $26,378 in two theaters, it will next play in other cosmopolitan and university-heavy markets, starting 3/13 in Berkeley, CA., San Francisco, CA, Cambridge, MA, Washington D.C., and Chicago, IL. Subsequent bookings include other college towns such as Amherst, MA and Charlotte, NC (4/3), as well as Ithaca, NY and Waterville, ME (4/10). Only after the film’s main commercial run will the film’s campus bookings begin to take place more widely in mid-April. And that is, potentially, when change could really begin to happen.
So far, according to RADiUS-TWC, more than 1,000 requests from colleges and universities from across the country have come in to the company and its grassroots partner, Film Sprout, to show the documentary. Several screenings have already been confirmed at colleges, including a few (Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado, Boulder) where Title IX federal investigations are currently underway for the institutions’ alleged mishandling of cases of sexual assault and harassment on their campuses. Undoubtedly, tensions will be high.
Indeed, at sneak preview showings of the film at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the first school to have hosted a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” “it was intense,” said Kate Previti, a PhD candidate in American Studies and co-programmer of the College’s Global Film Festival, where the documentary played. 
Global Film Festival Director Timothy Barnard, a professor of Film and Media Studies at William and Mary, noted that after the first screening, several survivors of sexual assault came forward to talk to the film’s activists, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, who were also in attendance. “It was a very significant and telling moment,” said Barnard.
Many students who saw the film on a Friday night lobbied school administrators to attend the film’s second showing on Sunday, which eventually saw the school’s president Taylor Reveley, provost Michael R. Halleran, and police chief Deb Cheesebro, in attendance.
For Previti, it was especially powerful to have the administrators in the house and “know that we had two hours where they couldn’t look away from the issue,” she said. “I’ve heard students who said, knowing that our administrators have seen the movie, they have more grounds to hold them accountable moving forward.”
While Previti acknowledged it’s too early to know whether any concrete and lasting policy changes will take effect as a result of “The Hunting Ground” screening, she already noticed some changes: Increased talk among faculty about the issue, more students visiting with campus security, and activity around the university’s Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment. “They’re getting a lot more people, and a lot of people who had been absent from the conversation like fraternities and sororities are joining in,” she said. 
Ultimately, Previti said that the film’s impact has already exceeded her expectations.
Outside of academia, “The Hunting Ground’s” public profile is also gaining traction with the help of a University administrator’s first counterattack against the film. On Tuesday, Florida State University president John Thrasher posted a comment on a school website, calling “The Hunting Ground” filmmakers unethical for their handling of a high-profile sexual harassment suit involving one of its star football players, and not giving FSU enough time to respond to the allegations.
Kirby Dick responded to several of president Thrasher’s claims. “The university had months to respond to the letter we sent President Thrasher in which we wrote that our film would examine how FSU was dealing with issues they had encountered regarding sexual assault,” wrote Dick. “We didn’t get a response until last week—three days before our film opened in theaters and more than two months after we first sent the letter.”
The Thrasher news hit The Washington Post yesterday, and other media outlets, such as a Florida ABC affiliate and Deadline.com, are beginning to follow suit. All this is good publicity for “The Hunting Ground” campaign, which should only get more heated in the months that follow. With the documentary’s TV broadcast set for CNN before the end of the year, “The Hunting Ground” could very well catapult out of the art-house and into the public conversation (as happened with CNN’s broadcast of “Blackfish” in 2013).
For Kate Previti and many others, it will still have been a long wait. “So much more has to be done,” she said.

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