Powerful New Film About Campus Rape Reveals Shocking New Insights About Male Behavior
In one of the many troubling and eye-opening scenes in director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering’s new documentary, "The Hunting Ground," we witness the blurry visual and crystal-clear audio footage of the night a Yale fraternity surrounded a dorm housing many of the first-year women. “No means yes!” the frat boys shout in unison, and then, “Yes means anal!” They repeat the chant again and again, interrupted only by one member’s insistence that they yell even louder.
It’s an exercise clearly undertaken to intimidate, insult and harass, and with the same point of view as the women in the building, the audience is allowed to witness just how effective the tactic is. Like so many other moments in the film, it is a disturbing testament to the prevalence of rape culture on campuses around the country, a topic that’s recently become a national talking point. The success of Dick and Ziering’s film is that it not only examines the culture of rape in our institutions of higher learning, but uncovers how colleges and universities are complicit in perpetuating it.
Much like their 2012 documentary, "The Invisible War," which examined sexual abuse in the military, "The Hunting Ground" compiles interviews with survivors, both male and female (and in one case, a convicted campus rapist), as well as a stunning array of study findings, including stats that reveal how few rapists are penalized (spoiler alert: almost none). Interwoven with archival news footage, the film examines the factors that allow sexual assault to proliferate on campuses nationwide such as Harvard, UC Berkeley, Swarthmore, Tufts, Arizona State University, Brown and far beyond.
I spoke with the filmmakers ahead of the documentary’s release in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 27.
Kali Holloway: This obviously seemed like a logical next step after taking on rape in the military with “The Invisible War,” but I wondered, what specifically led you to tackle the issue of rape on college campuses?
Amy Ziering: Well, we actually finished "The Invisible War" and we were not anticipating making another film in this arena. We actually had jumped right into making a very different film. But in the course of doing outreach for The Invisible War we showed it on a number of campuses and time and again Kirby and I would find that someone would come up to us after the screening and say, “Thank you for making this film. Something similar happened to me here and my institution’s response was very similar to what you pointed out going on in the military."
This just kept happening to us over and over again and then we literally started getting emails in our inboxes from different people around the country saying, “Thank you for making The Invisible War. And then they’d tell us their story, imploring us to make a film on campus assault, saying they needed a film on that issue as well. So we sort of looked at each other and thought, "Well, let's start investigating and see."
When we did start looking into it we found out that not only what everyone was telling us was as bad as they've told us but even worse. We then felt like how could we not make this film, and sort of pivoted and decided to dive in and do it.
KH: So many of the stories, in terms of the way the schools basically mistreated and ignored the survivors, reminded me of “The Invisible War.” The similarities were almost uncanny in some cases. Were you surprised to see how alike these seemingly different institutions were in their non-response to rape?
AZ: I was shocked. It was very counter-intuitive for me. In the military, I sort of could understand it. I feel like it made sense; that kind of environment I could see could possibly foster this [behavior]. But for me, and I think for the public at large, this is very counter-intuitive. As a parent and a mother with students who are in college and just graduated college, it never occurred to me that, that environment was similar. Our first thought is that the institution is aligned with the best interest of the students. That's common sense. And then we started working on the film and seeing actually, no, schools are incentivized in a strange, perverse way to have their own best interests at heart, which are not always in sync with what's best for their students.
KH: What do you think of some of the solutions that are being floated? Recently Dartmouth said it would ban hard liquor on campus. And even more insane, 10 states are proposing campus carry of handguns as a way of arming women against rape, which seems incredibly short-sighted. What are your thoughts on how effective any of these things will be?
Kirby Dick: Well, specifically to campus carry, I think that the people [who] are making those suggestions really don't understand the problem at all. Eventually, it will only make the problem worse. To begin with, so many of these assaults happen when people are drinking alcohol. So to introduce a lethal weapon in that situation is very dangerous for anybody, including the person using it and people around that person.
Secondly, most of these assaults happen between people who know each other. So it's very unlikely that someone would even use that weapon. And then finally, so many of these assaults happen when someone is incapacitated, so they couldn't use it at all. Obviously, we welcome people trying to come up with solutions to address the problem. But, in this case, the people making the suggestions just don't understand the nature of the problem.
Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand and Senator [Claire] McCaskill's bill has a lot of very important reforms that has bipartisan support in Congress. That's a very important step.
We think each school should be doing surveys to understand the nature of the problems and get that information out. Right now they're not doing those surveys, finding out what the prevalence of sexual assault is on their campus and how comfortable people feel with reporting. And until they do that, in some ways you can say that they are still participating in the coverup. Because in order to solve a problem you have to have the information out to the public.
KH: “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground” are both films that center on rape. But there's also the theme of Davids taking on Goliaths. Is that where your interest is in terms of storytelling?
KD: Yeah. And that's something I think we've been interested in for a long, long time. Part of the way the institution keeps this story locked down is that they are the Goliath, if you will, and they control a good deal in this society, and were able to keep this information from the public. It takes someone like Annie and Andrea, [two anti-rape advocates in the film], and other activists to really step up in very creative ways to take on their institutions and then group with other activists to make this a national issue. And…that’s extremely cinematic.
KH: And your efforts will probably dovetail with that work. I was super aware of the outreach campaign around “The Invisible War” and I wondered if you’re launching a similar, equally ambitious campaign around this film?
AZ: Yeah, we very much are. The good news with this, though, is that there's a lot more really healthy and active organizations already in place to work with and have our film through their leverage and fuel their efforts. Whereas with The Invisible War, it didn't have this sort of incredibly rich environment to land in. So yes, it is equally ambitious but it's not as hard because it's not just on our shoulders. There are a lot of groups going out and doing this work and we can sort of offer them the film and hope it helps them move their efforts forward. And all of us sort of cross-pollinate and move together in sync.
Watch the trailer for the film: