“What happens in college stays in college. Most of the time.”
This statement, made by one university president in the opening scene of Kirby Dick’s documentary “The Hunting Ground,” is the unfortunate truth behind the epidemic of sexual assaults on American college campuses that the film examines.
After showing a number of home videos of high school seniors excitedly receiving their college acceptance letters, filmmakers introduce Andrea Pino and Annie Clark. Both women were raped within their first two years as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and both women encountered victim blaming and reluctant administrators while attempting to report their assaults to the university.
Their attempts to file a Title IX complaint against UNC and create a support network of college sexual assault survivors across the country form the narrative backbone of the documentary.
One-on-one interviews with survivors from a large number of universities all made it very clear that, even when assaults are reported, universities have done very little to investigate claims. Hearing from the survivors about the things they have been told by universities attempting to suppress rape cases is often enraging.
Clark recalled the disbelief she felt after one administrator told her that rape is like a football game — you have to look back and consider what you could have done differently. Another UNC administrator is shown in a news clip decrying the women’s Title IX complaint as “false, untrue, and just plain wrong.”
Two groups who one would think have the power to protect students, university presidents and campus police, have their own reasons for not reporting rape, the film argues. Presidents keep rape investigations quiet to ensure important donations continue rolling into their university. For police, it takes too much time and effort to effectively prosecute a sexual assault case.
Former Notre Dame university police officer Pat Cottrell described an instance where it took campus police days to track down a football player accused of sexual assault because they could not approach him at an athletic facility. This ridiculous policy had an extreme consequence: the victim in the case took her own life.
The documentary gives a lot of attention to the role that student athletes play in rapes on campus, including the sobering statistic that they are involved in 19 percent of college assaults.
To illustrate their view, the filmmakers give former FSU student Erica Kinsman time to tell her whole story. Kinsman describes how she was drugged and raped by a male student she didn’t know until she heard his name called out in class.
That student turned out to be the Seminoles’ star quarterback, Jameis Winston.
In one of the film’s more harrowing sequences, Kinsman tells of the inaction of FSU, the Tallahassee Police Department, and, ultimately, the state of Florida. Close-up shots of her face are intercut with footage of Winston on the football field and winning the Heisman trophy, along with clips of sportscasters praising him. As Kinsman struggled to cope with the threats and hatred of fellow students, her attacker was at the top of the world. The effect is jarring.
“The Hunting Ground” shines a huge spotlight on the alarming increase of sexual assaults on college campuses, and it argues for more action well. However, in the scene discussing rapes by fraternity members, it seems they chose to overlook many positive changes made by fraternities to deal with the issue.
The problems of frat life, like the brothers controlling alcohol consumption in the Greek community and the systematic isolation of women to take advantage of them, are clear and troubling. As the film shows, universities need the money that fraternities bring in from alumni.
However, the film seems to suggest that every frat house is a dangerous place for women and the Greek community needs to be shut down forever. The portrayal of these organizations as ones that run the university is more than a little unfair.
One great thing this documentary does is including the male perspective on rape. As one male survivor explains, sexual assault is mainly seen as a crime against women. Typically assaulted by other men, male victims rarely report the crimes in order to maintain their sense of masculinity and strength. In one heartbreaking scene, a male survivor cries as he talks about his mother immediately getting on a plane to be with him after his assault at George Mason University.
The filmmakers periodically return to Pino and Clark. By the end of the documentary, their efforts have garnered national attention, and they are shown in a meeting with U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. The release of the U.S. Department of Education’s list of universities under investigation for Title IX violations, which marks the end of the film, provides the a melancholy conclusion.
On one hand, after the suffering and pain of many and the efforts of many more, steps are finally being taken to combat rapes on campus.
On the other, warier hand, this problem has gotten so big that it will not be solved anytime soon. A sanction of a university here and there does not solve the underlying problems that cause people to assault others. That is a conversation that we must continue to have, one that “The Hunting Ground” sparks, in order to make college campuses safer for all.