Kirby Dick’s (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War) latest doc about an uncomfortable subject doesn’t feel as emotionally confronting as his best work and suffers a little from its own unabashedly one-sided perspective, but it’s a harrowing look at the campus rape “epidemic” all the same.
Dick travels across various American universities to interview both female and male victims of rape about their experiences, namely how the accusation was handled internally by the institution, and the outcome of their quest for justice. Naturally, the results are infuriating.
In much the same way that Dick examined the military’s own procedure for dealing with rapes in The Invisible War, he turns to the university’s own standard of accountability, talking to former administrators who make it clear that they are appointed to protect the institution, not the student, as many so erroneously believe. Why? Of course, as ever, it comes down to money; deal with a sexual assault out in the open, and it can be a serious PR problem, hurting alumni donation yields and other streams of revenue.
If we only get one interview with a convicted or accused rapist, the grim accounts of the young women paint a harrowing picture of the torment obviously inflicted upon then, stirred up by misogynistic frat culture and the near-deification of college athletes who come to believe they can do no wrong.
The film definitely has some dubious elements, no matter how stocking it is, though; it sometimes feels rather pat, flashing up statistics about how most men aren’t rapists, and also unintentionally underlines its own problems several times. For one, the use of “rape” as an all-catch descriptor builds an unfortunate if understandable wall of ambiguity regarding the specific acts, while viewers may wonder in their own mind what the truly appropriate course of action is for dealing with a sexual assault accusation; should the perpetrators really be named before guilt is ascertained given the lifelong stigma it can carry (something many of the activists demanded), and taking the subjects featured at 100% face value seems slightly odd even if to do anything else would usurp the film’s agenda and open it up to claims of victim-shaming.
There has also been significant controversy over the movie’s accuracy and possible manipulation of facts, though as many of these complaints come from those with a vested interest in stating as such (namely Harvard Law employees), it creates a disquieting fog of ambiguity that basically benefits no-one, as neither side seems massively trust-worthy.
On one hand a powerful polemic albeit one slightly blinded by its own goals, The Hunting Ground is compellingly disturbing viewing as long as you approach it with a critical mind.
The Hunting Ground is available now on DVD and VOD