The Weinstein Company
As a documentary, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s The Hunting Ground is just okay (our own Dan Schindel reviewed it out of Sundance, gamely commending its subject matter while questioning its artistic merit, amusingly and correctly writing, “this is one of those situations where stepping in as a movie critic and shrugging ‘it’s just not artistically engaging’ comes close to assholery”). Yet, as a call to action, it’s fantastic, if only because the stories it tells and the statistics it shares are so heinous as to turn its audience into seething balls of rage.
Dick and Ziering’s “campus rape doc” – a reductive, but mostly succinct description of the film – is wide-ranging (perhaps too wide-ranging, but that’s more a question of its artistic choices), and it’s mainly concerned with giving its audience a full look at the issue of on-campus rapes that plague so many American campuses. The film tackles a ton of material, including a hefty number of interviews with rape victims and advocates, a closer examination of how and why colleges discourage rape reportage, and even a peek inside some of the organizations fighting to change the way rape is treated on college campuses, all laced through with an almost numbing roll-out of heartbreaking statistics. Despite this bevy of material, The Hunting Ground works best when brings well-known rape cases to the fore.
That’s when your blood will really start to boil.
The Hunting Ground covers a lot of, well, ground, but things really pick up when Dick and Ziering turn their attention to already well-publicized campus rape accusations, putting an incredibly personal face on the kind of stuff we have already seen splashed all over the news. The effect is an upsetting one, but Dick and Ziering also handle things quite delicately, giving equal credence to both stories we have not heard before and stories we think we already know.
Of the more high profile cases covered in The Hunting Ground, a trio stand out in stark relief:
1. Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at St. Mary’s College (an all-female college associated with Notre Dame) who committed suicide in 2010, just days after formally accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her. She was mercilessly bullied in the days leading up to her death, he was cleared of all charges.
2. Erica Kinsman, a former Florida State University student who accused eventual Heisman Trophy-winning FSU football player Jamies Winston of raping her in 2012. Like Seeberg, Kinsman was bullied and threatened after her accusations went public, while Winston was not pursued for criminal charges and FSU determined he had not violated any of their rules of conduct.
3. Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who accused fellow student Paul Nungesser of rape, ultimately turning her protest against the university for their handling of the case (which, of course, cleared Nungesser of the accusations) by carrying her own mattress around campus for whole months.
Google any of these names if you’re not already familiar with them, and a bevy of information will pop up, but seeing these stories told in a personal manner on the big screen is deeply effective. You might think you know, but you don’t. (Lady Gaga even trills on a closing credits track, “Till It Happens To You,” which puts a nice, if wrenching period on the entire subject.) Seeberg’s still emotional father talks about her death, Kinsman herself describes her horrific experience, and Sulkowicz’s project lingers on the edges of the last act, which is mostly concerned with discussing activism and its effects on the issues at hand. That these are women who did the “right” thing by reporting these crimes is even more haunting, a cautionary tale that doesn’t have a good, workable lesson.
Adding in a truly personal level to these stories, stories that plenty of people likely already feel very well-acquainted with, is what gives the film its real strength. The film may pile on plenty of other stuff – including all those stats, which are shocking on their own, but really leave a mark when coupled with a real story – but when it turns to striking and intimate moments with real people, that’s when its audience’s rage turns into a full-on roar.
The Hunting Ground is now playing in limited release, check out screening options right here.