Sunday night, CNN aired Dick and Ziering’s latest documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” despite threats of legal action from a lawyer for Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Jameis Winston. In the film, Erica Kinsman says that Winston, a Heisman Trophy winner, sexually assaulted her in December 2012, while both were students at Florida State University, and that both FSU and Tallahassee, Fla. law enforcement failed to investigate the allegations adequately. (Florida police did not bring criminal charges against Winston, who claims the sex was consensual, and FSU president John Thrasher has called “The Hunting Ground” “inaccurate and incomplete.”)
Dick and Ziering worked together on 2012 Oscar nominee “The Invisible War,” with Ziering conducting many of the harrowing interviews under Dick’s direction. Dick has made a name for himself by writing and directing documentaries that challenge powerful institutions, from the Catholic Church (Oscar-nominated “Twist of Faith”) to the MPAA Ratings Board (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). Most filmmakers hope that their movies will be seen, talked about, make money, earn awards, and maybe have some influence on the culture at large.
With “The Invisible War,” Dick and Ziering set their sights on reforming the U.S. Military. They were determined to shake things up and push for change, because to allow the shocking scale of male and female rapes in the military to continue was unthinkable. “The Invisible War” received Sundance 2012’s Audience Award and IDA and Oscar nominations. And Dick and Ziering were amazed at the impact the film had; it helped to change the way rape cases are now handled in the military.
After the doc came out, the filmmakers were “implored by students who reached out to us,” said Ziering, several women who had been raped on college campuses, urging them to tell their story. “How can we not?” she said. “It was our obligation to do something meaningful.”
When the filmmakers started to research the issue, they were shocked at the prevalence of a campus “rape culture.” So they decided to take the same approach as “The Invisible War”: take the story away from a print or news context and let audiences get to know the women, so that viewers could experience their pain, and identify with them as real people who did not deserve to be treated so badly, whose lives were often ruined.
Dick and Ziering followed a similar methodology: they criss-crossed the country, did what Ziering describes as “voracious and through” leg work, conducted interviews, tracked the numbers. They were horrified by the statistics: One in five college women is sexually assaulted, yet only a fraction report the crimes, and even fewer perpetrators get punished.
By following the money, they realized that the college institutions were not willing to serve and protect their students’ interests. As businesses, the health of the corporation demanded that they bury and hide any accounts of student rape on their campus, male or female. It was a public relations and recruitment issue. So several colleges in “The Hunting Ground” allowed serial rapists to continue to attend school rather than expel them. That also goes for a college football star who kept playing despite multiple accusations against him.
After Dick struggled to find the right opening for the movie, an editor finally suggested the idea of showing that moment of euphoria and joy in a family when a student opens that letter of acceptance. Later on, we then see how sexual assault can shatter a once happy family. “They are trusting the institution,” says Ziering, “that then shuts their daughter down and victim blames her. It’s devastating and so tragic that the school they loved couldn’t protect them.”
For Dick it was startling every time he did interviews to see the same pattern emerge: “How could this happen yet again? At Harvard? At Berkeley? It still shocks me. I can’t get over it.” The filmmakers opted not to go down the path of trying to figure out the mindset of the rapists, but rather examine the institutions that permit them to continue their predatory behavior.
On the positive side, the movie follows groups of women, including several Berkeley students, who were willing to speak out and fight against their universities–effectively. Again, there is hope that the climate is ready for change.
Dick was right, when he spoke with us in February—shortly after it debuted at Sundance and in advance of its theatrical release by RADiUS—that “The Hunting Ground” would “get discussed on a much different level” after airing on CNN.