An unflinching examination of sexual assaults that have been covered up by colleges and universities across America.
During the promotional tour for The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated film that lifted the veil on rape in the U.S. military, documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering traversed the country screening their movie at various college universities. What Dick and Ziering discovered, and eventually told The Wrap, was an unsettling recurring trend: After almost every showing, a student would come to them and say, "Actually this happened to me here," linking the negligent responses to their sexual assault to the systematic cover-ups employed by the military. Soon the evidence, which came in the form of face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and emails from survivors, was overwhelming—Dick and Ziering had happened upon their next project.
More timely now than ever, The Hunting Ground is a revealing (and necessary) exposé of not only the rape epidemic on college campuses, but how these institutions have historically ignored and suppressed this issue. Through harrowing interviews with victims, school faculty, and psychologists, the movie assiduously examines rape culture at large—from the sexually noxious environments that fraternities breed to the victim-blaming climate all too many Americans inhabit. The film is light on opinion and high on statistics, which makes watching it all the more infuriating. What we're presented with in The Hunting Ground is not bullshit, per se, but a series of administrative and legal roadblocks, dead ends, and cul-de-sacs that illustrate an outrageous level of indifference and cowardice from our educational, criminal, and judicial systems.
With The Hunting Ground, Ziering and Dick have created a painful experience, sure to induce a sigh, tear, or table-flipping, depending on your preference. The celebrated directors were kind enough to talk to VICE about uncovering this toxic wasteland, raising awareness, and why some college institutions value their reputation over the safety of their students.
Trailer to 'The Hunting Ground' (2015)
VICE: Beginning in This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), running through The Invisible War (2011), and now with The Hunting Ground, there's an activist streak in your body of work. Would either of you describe your movies as PSAs?
Kirby Dick, director: Certainly not PSAs. We're filmmakers first and foremost. I mean all those films, and Outrage, have had incredible audience responses. We make our films to make powerful, cinematic experiences. Part of that cinematic experience is watching either the filmmaker or subject take on institutions and try to uncover something that's been covered up. We also hope that these films help address social issues and help change the way this country understands these issues.
Although, unlike a Frederick Wiseman documentary, there's no uncertainty as to where either of you stand. Your positions and messages are clear. There's a link at the end of this movie, telling people where to go to help.
Dick: I think there are messages in every film.
Amy Ziering, producer: Even Wiseman's films have a point of view. Cinéma vérité is also highly constructed, edited, and selected. So you're watching the ideology of the filmmaker. His perspective. I would sort of break down that distinction between advocacy films and our films, vérité and non-vérité. Rigorous analysis proves that's sort of a fallacious distinction.
Right. But your voices are actually heard in the film. I don't believe that's ever happened in a Wiseman movie.
Ziering: But he's behind the lens directing it and he's overseeing the editing process. That's my only point. There's an intention and a subjectivity behind those choices. A squirrel didn't put those films together. Whatever history he brings to bear is part of why he's interested in having his camera in a certain place.
In the two years that you both were working on this movie, did you often circle back to the conclusion that the lack of progress was a result of money controlling decision-making?
Dick: That's certainly an issue, not only with institutions of higher education, but across any institution. An institution's survival and the protection of their reputation are paramount. We see that in the Catholic Church, and we certainly saw that with the military. Money is a part of that. When you have a good reputation, you're able to draw money, able to draw top-notch students. But I think there's another issue here as well: Sexual assault is not understood in this country. There's a misunderstanding not only around the country, but to some degree among a lot of administrators.
Ziering: I think it isn't just a money problem. It's a problem of people not understanding. Certainly on campuses. The common conception right now, even with all the press, is he said, she said. It's "sloppy sex," it's "hookups gone bad." I think our film radically shifts the perspective and says, "Actually, no. It's a highly calculated, premeditated crime. It's target rape, not date rape." And it's these institutions that host these kinds of criminals that allow them to act in a predatory way with no repercussions. When you have that perfect storm environment, you can perpetrate these crimes ad infinitum.
It's troubling to see universities seemingly care so little about human life.
Dick: They do care. The people in these institutions care about their students and their education. But historically, in situations like this, they are willing to put their own reputations above that. And that's a huge mistake. It's a recipe for this problem continuing. The first step they have to take is to acknowledge that they have a problem. To encourage people to come forward and talk about it, and then adequately investigate and adjudicate these crimes, rather than covering it up.
Ziering: But to your point, it was shocking for me. I did the interviews with the subjects and I'm in first position just like an administrator would've been with that same subject. I just don't know how you could sit across from someone, and they're telling you this story, and respond the way that these men and women were reportedly responding. Just as a human being, it's strange.
Within these institutions, how persistent were you two in reaching out to administrators and deans for comment?
Ziering: Oh my god, we were very persistent. Multiple emails, multiple approaches. They'd say no, and I'd come back. It was over two years. We were used to that from The Invisible War, where we had to go after everybody like a dog with a bone. But unlike with the military, if you fulfill certain obligations and jump through those bureaucratic hoops, they have to speak with you. They're a public institution, but the universities don't.
Dick: And there was as much fear in high education as there was in the military about talking about this issue. Many, many more faculty were aware of this and didn't want to speak. Some of these administrators were doing really good things on their campus but were still completely afraid about speaking because they were not only worried about losing their job, they were worried they could never get hired in their profession again.
And what about some of the assailants?
Dick: For the major stories in our film, where the survivors knew who their assailant was, we reached out to all those people. And of course we also reached out Jameis Winston as well. Multiple times to his attorneys. We also reached out to FSU, to the Tallahassee police department. There was no response. No one chose to be interviewed.
Aside from exploring the special privileges afforded to student-athletes, the film picks up where Caitlin Flanagan's expose in the Atlantic left off in regards to the fraternity system. With all the accusations hurled at frat houses, and the members convicted for crimes, how do these institutions still exist?
Dick: Well, that's a very good question. Let's back up a bit. There are a lot of benefits to being in a fraternity, and most men in fraternities are not predators. But if you go on college campuses where there is significant Greek life, almost every campus you go on there will be one, two, or three houses that have a reputation for sexual assault. And it's very easy to find that out after an hour of asking students. If those students know where those houses are, you have to assume that people in the administration know that, too. That's one of the things our film points out: These administrators know, but they are not giving the information out to the students. Especially the parents of the incoming students who don't know. They are allowing for this situation to exist. But few schools conduct annual surveys of their students to find out the rate of sexual assault and gauge how comfortable they are reporting, how comfortable they feel with the investigation process. That should be made public, and until schools do that, they are engaging in a coverup. There's no other way around it.
Do you think administrators are unwilling to do that?
Dick: They are afraid. The numbers will be high, maybe shockingly high. So they'll be known as the "rape school." The reality is it's happening at all schools, they're actually being proactive about it. It takes courage though.
I suspect you two have read that infamous Rolling Stone piece by now.
Dick: We absolutely have. There's no question that there were some issues with the reporting there. But you really have to keep this in perspective in terms of the big picture. This is about one story on one campus. And the reality is this is happening on all campuses over and over again.
Ziering: At epidemic levels. That's where our outrage and focus should be. Bad reporting on any issue is unfortunate, but it doesn't really impact the issue itself.
As your movie notes, fraudulent claims account for less than ten percent of rape reports. However, that article affected public perception of the issue and the conversation around it.
Dick: It's unfortunate in terms of people's understanding of the issue, which is one of the reasons we feel this film is coming out at a really good time. I think this film offers a much bigger perspective on the problem and a much more analytical perspective than what happened after the Rolling Stone article.
Ziering: It provides real information.
There's a moment in the film where one of the survivors says, "My rape was bad, but the way I was treated afterward was worse." What do you think compels people online to lash out the way they do? From where does this vile, shaming culture originate?
Dick: People are shocked to learn how low the number of false rape claims are. Everybody assumes that it's much higher.
Ziering: And what our film does is shift it from one "hookup gone bad" to a targeted crime that exploits these certain environments. Which will help people be more believed when they come forward. I can't account for why people are reticent to believe this, because that's never been an issue for me, or one that I can relate to.
But I was thinking back on the Rolling Stone piece, and I think the reason those stories get so much traction is because we don't want to hear or believe this is true. So we get one story that gives us, "Oh, my god. OK, I don't have to face this horrific thing." And we latch onto that on an unconscious level. That allows us to keep going in a happy, uninformed, ignorant bliss.
Where do we go moving forward?
Dick: There's some activity in congress. I think a few senators next week are going to reintroduce their bill, Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA), which has some very important reforms. President Obama and Vice President Biden have been really great on this issue. I think over the last three to four years we're starting to at least talk about things in the way we haven't in the past. There's also hope in the students. Without the students' activism, we wouldn't be here today talking about this.
Ziering: Yeah, and now The Invisible War is a training tool on military bases. Who would've ever imagined that? These things have a ripple effect. Change can be slow and change can be fast. Maybe we're watching a cultural transformation in process.
The Hunting Ground is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York, and opens in theaters February 27. Sam Fragoso is a writer based in San Francisco. He is the founder of Movie Mezzanine, and his work has appeared in the Atlantic, Playboy, Forbes, and elsewhere.