Director Kirby Dick's new documentary on sexual assault, "The Hunting Ground," should be required viewing for every current and incoming college student.
The film begins with snapshots of several young women receiving their college acceptance letters or emails. They scream with excitement, some bursting into tears, surrounded by equally ebullient mothers, fathers and siblings.
The scenes are later chilling, in stark contrast with the tears shed by dozens of college students (mostly young women, but also some men) as they recount on camera how they were sexually assaulted -- and then failed by the institutions to which they reported their assaults.
"I had this idealistic view that if I was telling the truth, they would support me," Rachel Hudak, a Saint Mary's College student who was forcibly raped by a male student from sister-school University of Notre Dame, said of her school's administrators. "They didn't."
"The Hunting Ground," which premiered earlier this year and is making its way to college campuses across the country through individual screenings, brings to light the
complex issues driving the rising tide of student activism focused on campus sexual assault. From victim blaming, fraternity culture and the lucrative business of college sports to flawed university processes and philosophies around adjudicating reports of sexual assault, the film exposes the a culture of denial and makes it clear the time has come for widespread reform.
The film will be screened at Stanford University on Tuesday, April 28, from 7 to 9 p.m. Sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; the Women's Community Center; Student Affairs and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the free event will also feature a panel discussion with producer Amy Ziering, Stanford Title IX Coordinator Catherine Criswell and Angela Exson, director of Stanford's Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse (SARA) office. A Stanford student-activist will moderate the panel.
Stanford is one of numerous universities that has recently come under fire for its mishandling of sexual assault, and the April 28 screening holds heightened significance. It comes soon after a university task force released a series of recommendations for how Stanford must reform its sexual-assault procedures, policies and resources, including implementing expulsion as the expected sanction for students found responsible for sexual misconduct. The school last month joined the more than 100 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for Title IX investigations. (The complaint was filed by student Leah Francis, who went public with her case in June 2014 and is alleging that Stanford failed to promptly and equitably provide a response to and resolution for a sexual-assault report she filed in January 2014.) There's also a former star freshman swimmer due in court in Palo Alto this June for allegedly raping an unconscious woman on campus in January and a fraternity that lost its house for two years after a sexual-harassment investigation.
The opening scene of "The Hunting Ground" sets up a juxtaposition that continues throughout the film. It forces viewers to square the idyllic image of college as a safe, fun, nurturing place where passions are pursued and lifelong friends made with a much darker side where known rapists walk free and students who are brave enough to report sexual assault are the ones left feeling punished.
The responsibility for this injustice doesn't lie only with perpetrators of sexual assault, the film suggests, but also with those in power who are obligated to adjudicate such situations. "The Hunting Ground" is a fierce condemnation of university presidents and administrators who appear to choose reputation and brand over doing what is right when faced with reports of serious sexual misconduct on their campuses.
The examples are numerous. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), student-activist Annie Clark said when she finally told an administrator that she had been violently raped, the administrator told her "'Rape is like a football game, Annie. If you look back on the game, what would you do differently in that situation?'"
Other students report administrators advising them not to tell anyone else about their assault or asking them questions about how much alcohol they consumed or what they were wearing when it happened.
"If a student comes to an administrator with a problem, it's not as if the administrator wants that student to be harmed; it's not as if the administrator wants the harm to be perpetuated, but their first job is to protect the institution from harm, not the student from harm," former Wesleyan University professor Claire Bond Potter says in the film.
As "Hunting Ground" producer Amy Ziering told the Weekly in a recent telephone interview, these students "suffered a horrible crime, and not only did they not receive justice; they themselves were punished, blamed, exiled, harassed. That sort of thing seemed extremely crazy to us, especially on campuses. It's sort of counter-intuitive to (the way) we imagine a campus would respond."
This attitude is made clear by statistics peppered throughout the film. Sixteen to 20 percent of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted in college, according to several studies and campus surveys taken between 2000 and 2014. Yet 88 percent of women raped on campuses do not report the crime. And in 2012, 40 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults, according to the U.S. Senate Survey in 2014. There's also a startlingly huge gap between the number of reported sexual assaults and the number of expulsions at universities like Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University and the University of Virginia. (At Stanford, from 1996 to 2013, there have been 259 reported sexual assaults and only one expulsion, according to the film.)
"(Universities) haven't shifted enough money and resources to training and proper understanding of the issue and putting policies in place so that these things are fairly investigated and adjudicated," Ziering said. "That, to me, is the crux of the issue."
The backbone of "The Hunting Ground" is the story line of Clark and Andrea Pino, another UNC student survivor turned activist. After Pino seeks Clark's support during her freshman year, the two join forces to fight for change at their university and eventually to launch a national grassroots campaign for sexual-assault reform. Clark and Pino went on to found End Rape on Campus, now a robust survivor advocacy organization.
Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who also worked together on "The Invisible War," a 2012 documentary on the rape epidemic in the U.S. military, follow Clark and Pino on their advocacy journey from Chapel Hill to, eventually, Capitol Hill. You watch them in Oregon, where one wall of the apartment the two young women share is covered in a large, makeshift map of the United States; numerous pink dots mark the states with universities where students have reported a lack of response to their reports of sexual assault. (Clark later says in the film that when the U.S. Department of Education first released its list of colleges under investigation for violating gender-equity law Title IX, it matched their map.) Viewers of the film listen in as Clark and Pino receive emotional Skype calls, voice mails, tweets and text messages from survivors across the country who have heard about their work and reached out for support and guidance. ("So many survivors come forward saying, 'My rape was bad, but the way I was treated [by my university was worse,'" Clark says.)
Interwoven into Clark and Pino's journey of advocacy are other stories of sexual assault. "The Hunting Ground" speaks to the father of Lizzy Seeberg, a Notre Dame student who died by suicide after she was sexually assaulted by a football player who texted her afterward, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea."
There are also interviews with Erica Kinsman, the Florida State University (FSU) student who was sexually assaulted by star quarterback Jameis Winston. Both stories illustrate the helplessness of women coming up against school cultures and industries that place college athletes on a multi-million-dollar pedestal.
Though the presidents and chancellors of many of the universities featured in "The Hunting Ground" declined to be interviewed, the film does speak to a young man who went to jail for six and a half years for sexual assault (his face is blurred out to protect his identity); to the Florida district attorney (and Florida State University alumni) who decided not to file charges against star quarterback Jameis Winston despite DNA evidence that later linked him to an assault he was accused of; to a former Dartmouth College fraternity brother and a former member of the University of Notre Dame's police department.
Some of the survivors' accounts of their assaults and universities' lackluster responses are pieced together, with women in separate interviews essentially finishing each other's sentences. The effect is powerful and profound. You watch Pino bury her head in her hands, explaining how she relives her own assault every time she hears another survivor's story,
"...but it's the only way I get up in the morning," she says. "I would have given anything to have somebody who believed me, somebody who supported me."
"The Hunting Ground" adds momentum to an already powerful social movement creating real change on many campuses, including Stanford. As one interviewee put it: "There is a revolution happening at universities across the country, and I really hope this is our watershed moment."
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, and for language. One hour, 30 minutes.
For more information on sexual-assault issues at Stanford, head to the Palo Alto Weekly's Storify page: Rising pressure on campus.
What: "The Hunting Ground" screening and panel discussion
Where: CEMEX Auditorium, 641 Knight Way, Stanford
When: Tuesday, April 28, 7-9 p.m.
Info: Go to events.stanford.edu.