The Hunting Ground is a familiar story to many of us on college campuses: every fall, thousands of young people enter college, eager to learn and grow (and party) in a new environment. Over the course of their time in college, many of those young people will be raped. The Hunting Ground lays out quite a few of these stories in succession, interviewing victims, college administrators, police officers, lawyers, activists, and even a rapist. It is a film with a very clear objective, aiming mostly to say that rape happens often, and it happens here.
I should disclose that I did not approach this film as an objective reviewer: I know a handful of people interviewed for the film (Swarthmore makes an appearance, in fact), and have heard some of them discuss the process of its production. I also have strong opinions on campus rape and sexual assault, as many people do. I do not think this negates my take on the film or clouds my judgement any more than the reality of my being a young woman at a college under investigation for Title IX violations would.
Even if you do not know any of the particular lives and traumas of the people in the film, if you’ve followed the campus-rape movement at all, you’re familiar with the general arc of their stories: a student is attacked, and when they report the attack, the college administrators’ first reaction is to keep the story quiet, rather than ensure the student’s safety. The victim is re-traumatized by the college’s response, and their attacker moves on without anything resembling a significant consequence.
It’s very easy to sounds detached when describing this all-too-common pattern on campuses across the country. But filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the team behind the military rape documentary The Invisible War, use a few now-infamous stories to put the epidemic in focus. There is Rachel Hudak, a biology student at St. Mary’s whose case was so badly mishandled that the campus police officer in charge of the investigation quit in protest. There is Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student who says she was raped and drugged by star quarterback Jameis Winston, who seemed to have the entire town stand by him as Kinsman’s name was dragged through the mud.
Watching The Hunting Ground stirred something in me: I was overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated. But the most prevalent feeling was a sense of familiarity. To put it frankly, there comes a time when you have heard enough horror stories that you seem to have heard them all. Some cases I know better than others (Jameis Winston is a name I won’t soon forget) but it’s hard to be surprised by the depth of apathy or malice displayed by the people who surround rape victims, both on campus and online. For too long, this response to reports of rape and assault have been the rule, not the exception.
While the film does offer clarity as an introductory text to the Title IX movement—it is a well-lit mix of personal narratives with sobering statistics—I found myself wishing a more complicated story had been told. It communicates the systemic nature of administrative neglect and incompetence, and the conflict of interest many schools have in trying to sell themselves as a safe place to study while reporting accurate crime numbers, yes, but its portrayal of student activists struck the wrong chord with me.
Andrea Pino and Annie Clark’s crusade to use Title IX to force schools to address rape makes up a large part of the film. Clark and Pino, both UNC students and survivors of sexual violence, have done a lot of work for students, working as advocates and travelling across the country to hear their stories and take up their cause. Ground portrays Clark and Pino as warriors, and it might be right. These women, and many more students not on screen, have led a charge to change their institutions. But, frankly, this shouldn’t be the case. The burden to keep students safe and sexual predators accountable should not lie with twenty-somethings. Student activists have shouldered this burden, but it never should have been put upon them in the first place. The Hunting Ground is a rallying cry, but I wonder if it will drive us in the right direction.
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