Why the campus rape doc ‘The Hunting Ground’ is so important—and so controversial

I saw close to 20 movies this past January at Sundance. The films I saw were extraordinarily crafted, deeply moving and undeniably important. Still, none of the other movies I saw shook me to my very core like The Hunting Ground, a documentary that explores the epidemic of sexual assault on American college campuses.

The doc follows several survivors of assault, women (and a few men) who attend or have attended a variety of colleges and universities—Ivy Leagues, big state schools, small liberal arts schools—as these survivors work to advocate for themselves and see justice served. These young women differ in so many, many ways and their schools differ in so many, many ways, but the one thing these girls sadly have in common is that their schools all seemed to have deliberately obstructed justice. As the documentary portrays the problem, 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college, yet the tiniest fraction of their assaulters will be brought to justice because colleges and universities are prone to silence these women rather than acknowledge the severity of the campus rape problem, and thus see admissions and donations drop. The movie makes the claim that rape is a problem for virtually all campuses, but chancellors and administrations would rather stick their heads in the sand and ignore the problem rather than taking real action and risking backlash.

The Hunting Ground has been in theaters for about a week now in Los Angeles and New York. It’s also set for a tour of college campuses that will accompany its national rollout. As the film ramps up, it has come up against its fair share of pushback.

In a review that Emily Yoffe wrote for Slate, she deems the documentary “…a polemic that—as its title suggests—portrays young women as prey, frequently assaulted and frequently ignored by their universities and law enforcement when they try to bring charges” and takes the doc to task for being a film that “…traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions, but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects—and us all—a disservice.”

Meanwhile, one of the tentpole stories of the documentary, Florida State University student Erica Kinsmann’s alleged assault at the hands of FSU football star Jameis Winston, is being hotly contested by FSU President John Thrasher, claiming the school was not given the opportunity to present their side of the story, a charge Hunting Ground director Kirby Dick firmly denies.

“The university had months to respond to the letter we sent President Thrasher in which we wrote that our film would examine how FSU was dealing with issues they had encountered regarding sexual assault and asking how it was responding to the crisis,” Dick told The Washington Post. “This was a similar correspondence — in content and timing — that all colleges and universities featured in the film received. . .We kept the film open (for edits) until February 19th in the hopes that President Thrasher and other presidents would come forward. It’s unfortunate because we would have welcomed including President Thrasher or another FSU official in the film.”

The director added that“Rather than attack the messenger, President Thrasher should show leadership and focus on the problem that has existed on his campus for decades.”

The back-and-forth between the documentary makers and its detractors eerily resembles the “he said, she said” conflicting testimonies that so frequently arise in the wake of a reported rape. When everyone claims to be reporting the facts, and the facts conflict, it can be difficult, if not outright impossible to decide who to believe.

Still, I can’t stop thinking of the girls featured in this documentary, how their throats closed up and their eyes filled with tears as they described their assaults. I don’t think The Hunting Ground is telling the whole story of rape on college campuses, and I don’t think the filmmakers are trying to tell the whole story. It’s too enormous and unwieldy, it wouldn’t fit into the two-hour time frame of a movie. What I do think these filmmakers are doing is telling a necessary story. Campus rape is not only devastating, it’s an epidemic, and it needs to be stopped. I think we can all at least agree on that.

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