Imagine you are at the bar one night and a guy just won’t leave you alone. You’re about to start throwing drinks when another dude swoops in and pretends to be your boyfriend, saving you. He gets you a drink, which makes you feel a little funny. You find yourself a while later on the bathroom floor, with him on top of you. You’re being raped. But after reporting the assault, no one really helps you: not the school, not the police. Then, one day, you are sitting in class when your rapist walks in. You report it to the cops, but they are slow to act, if at all. He is a star player on the football team. Your rape kit is a match with his DNA—still the school does not discipline him. They deem the encounter consensual; the media implies that your accusation is an attempt to ruin his football career. Your counsellor tells you he has done it to someone else. He is allowed to play in the big game, and is lauded as a hero. He wins the Heisman trophy. Now he is a top draft pick for the 2015 NFL draft. You receive no justice. No peace.
This is just one of the truly horrifying stories shared by assault survivors in The Hunting Ground, the new documentary—opening tonight—from director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering. Just like their previous film The Invisible War—about rape in the U.S. military—it is a film that is hard to watch, but something you must see. Campus sexual assault rates are mind-boggling: one in five women will be assaulted while at school, and as many as 90 percent of reported assaults are acquaintance rapes. (Wondering about false reports? They account for only two to 10 percent of charges made.)
Seventy survivors from universities across the United States bravely went on record for the film about their ordeal, sharing stories of great pain—of agony and disbelief that their own school would so callously disregard their well-being and safety, and protect their attackers. The film, made over the course of two years, follows activists Andrea Pino and Annie Clark in their quest to force schools to address the rampant assaults on, and by, students happening—and being ignored—on and off campuses everywhere. The pair has made amazing, inspiring progress with their Title IX campaign, but the battle seems impossibly daunting at times. Animated sequences reel off unbelievable stats and lists, including one of actual punishments meted out by universities for sexual assault: “Expulsion after graduation,” making a poster on appropriate ways to tell a girl you like her, suspension for a day, writing a paper or book report, and community service at a rape crisis centre. They are likely to reoffend, too: the film reveals that serial predators are responsible for 91 percent of all sexual assaults on campus, and they’ll commit an average of six assaults during their years at school. (One of them is even interviewed in the film.) Kirby Dick, along with Ziering, is determined to do his part to help end the campus rape epidemic; we chatted with him during the Toronto stop of his press tour in advance of The Hunting Ground’s release.
What sparked you into doing this film post–The Invisible War? After that we were like, “We don’t want to make another sexual assault movie, we want to go to another arena.” We were working on another movie, but we were taking The Invisible War around to all these campuses and the Q & A’s would turn very quickly from rape in the military to rape on college campuses, saying this is happening here. Amy and I would think, Something is bubbling up here. It’s a phenomenon. This is pretty intense. Then we would get letters and emails from people, sometimes survivors, imploring us to make this film. We just decided this is something we have to make: we are good at it, the country needs it and we hope there is at least a percentage of the change that The Invisible War made.
At a previous Q&A, I remember you mentioning how surprised you were that people in power granted you an interview in light of your previous whistle-blower docs, but for this film, there is a disclaimer stating that no university presidents agreed to an interview. Did you find a wall had been erected in the wake of The Invisible War? No, colleges and universities are very savvy, very protective of their brand and very rarely will put people forward to talk about this issue and often when they do they just read a statement. They don’t sit down for an interview. This is part of the problem: if you’re not willing to discuss you have a problem, if you are not willing to take responsibility for it, you are certainly not going to solve it and you are probably very actively involved in covering it up—that’s what’s happening with these schools. They are not surveying their student population to see how prevalent it is and sometimes when they do, they don’t make it public so that is a form of cover-up. It’s time for college presidents to step up, publicly, in front of a television camera and say, “We have a problem, all schools have problems, but we have a serious problem and I am here to tell you that I am responsible for solving this and I’m going to make it a top priority.” Maybe there will be some people who would say, “Oh my God. He’s admitted that he has a huge problem.” But I think most of the press would say, “His candidness is a sign that someone is there to take it seriously.” I think we should demand this of all our college presidents.
Obviously this is very difficult subject matter. What was the hardest day of filming for you? Where did you draw your strength from when you were making this documentary? Rage. It is just unbelievable that this is happening. But it was very difficult to do these interviews, Amy did most of the them. When you are listening to someone tell a story and it’s so heart-wrenching and you might even be tearing up, you realize that that is a powerful moment that can be used on film to convey to audiences what is really going on. You know as a filmmaker it’s an interesting situation where you’re in this moment that is very difficult, but you know if you are feeling that way then audiences will feel that way, too.
What about making this film scared you or stretched you as a documentarian? The investigative work, when you’re investigating dozens and dozens of institutions and following up on dozens and dozens of cases around the country. We had a great investigative producer in Amy Herdy. But we were constantly on cases. If somebody came forward we would often hear it within 24 to 48 hours after they came forward, through Annie or Andrea, or other people. We’d have cameras on the ground or be ready to have cameras on the ground so it was like you were following dozens of stories and then you have to bring them down into one 100-minute film. That is a challenge.
Have you have any personal moments where you felt like you’re really making a difference? Many, many times when it was filming. And now, every time after a screening, people come up to me, survivors. Sometimes they were assaulted last year, some 10, 20, 30 years ago. They were just so expressive, saying, “This film means so much to me. I lived with this for as long as I’ve lived with this and nobody believes me. It’s so great that you are getting this issue out.“ We have administrators, sometimes retired administrators coming up and saying, “I knew this was a problem. I tried to change things at my school, I did. I hope this does.” That’s very rewarding. There are so many people who know this is a problem, who experienced it or tried to change it and hopefully this film will reach out to them and so many more and collectively we can address this.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.