The Hunting Ground
Directed by Kirby Dick
Opens February 27
Academia is a fraught business with few major sources of income. Aside from tuition fees, for many universities, big money comes from alumni donations and athletics. These relationships are extremely lucrative and equally complicated, as director-producer team Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering demonstrate in The Hunting Ground, their powerful and upsetting documentary about campus rape. The vast majority of alumni donations are tied to Greek life (in 2013, fraternity alums gave more than $60 million to their alma maters), and at powerhouse athletic schools, head coaches make far more than college presidents. So viewers perhaps shouldn’t be shocked that universities are frequently unwilling to acknowledge claims of sexual violence, a significant percentage of which are linked to frat brothers and student athletes. But they will be. At a moment in which stories of campus rape are echoing across the media, The Hunting Ground is the most cogent and comprehensive look yet at how it happens and is mishandled on a systemic level.
The film loosely tracks two former University of North Carolina students who were sexually assaulted in their freshman year and follows them as they unsuccessfully try to get the university to take criminal action, ultimately filing a Title IX complaint against the school. Their accounts of administrators eager to place blame on them (the “What were you wearing?” approach) are disconcertingly similar to those of students at Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Tulsa, and the case for this being a standard response is bolstered by other testimonies—from decorated academics denied tenure for advocating for sexual assault victims, and by a former Notre Dame security guard who resigned out of frustration after years of watching the administration refuse to take action against perpetrators. Between disturbing case studies—there’s the Heisman-winning football player who had multiple sexual assault accusations swept under the rug by a local police force, the frat whose national nickname is “Sexual Assault Expected”—and infographics that make liberal use of university promotional videos, what emerges is an administrative culture that tacitly accepts sexual violence against women, and a campus culture that sometimes actively encourages it. The Hunting Ground isn’t starting this conversation, but it will go far in framing the debate.