It’s always difficult when a documentary that covers important and pressing issues isn’t as good as it should be. Coming off the back of three extremely strong pieces of activist cinema (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Outrage, and The Invisible War) I had high hopes for Kirby Dick’s latest film, and while it’s definitely fascinating, it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of his previous work, undermined by a structure that is often far more akin to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign (a somewhat hollow call-to-arms advertisement), than it is to quality activist documentary film-making.
With a structure essentially aping his earlier Academy Award nominated The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground opens by attacking a culture of covering up rape perpetrated at some of America’s most prestigious, and often sports-driven, academic institutions and the systematic issues that have led to such an epidemic. Following this first 45 minutes the film switches gears, following a group of students (and assault survivors) who discover a law that allows them to bring legal sanctions against their universities for fostering a discriminatory learning environment. Whilst some of the film’s earlier moments, in which the filmmakers talk to victims of rape, are deeply effective and the statistics conveyed are shocking,1 the film is at its strongest in later moments when those who reinforce the systematic cover-ups of sexual assault are publicly outed.2
In these moments, we see progress at work – the victims of abuse have had to out themselves as they seek justice, and now those who are complicit in a culture of victim blaming and the protection of perpetrators are cast into the limelight and criticised for all to see. While the film could be accused of inciting angry mob justice, these people are responsible for rubbing salt in the wounds of victims through their active inaction and are to blame for the continuation of a culture that protects the perpetrators of attacks rather than their victims. It is surprising, however, that even in this blatant and transparent attack on specific individuals, Dick’s documentary feels quite level headed and three dimensional in its research, with experts in the field given open reign to clarify statements – one moment that comes to mind sees an academic make clear that issues lie with a number of specific problematic frat houses, rather than frat culture in general, a nice distinction that wouldn’t be apparent in more alarmist cinema.
While much of this content is shocking and effective, the film is afflicted by numerous construction-based and structural issues that work to undermine its messages. There are entire chunks of the film that effectively replicate the style of film-making employed in college advertisements, occasionally to strong, unsettling effect, yet there are other similar bits of advertising pastiche that feel exactly like digital propaganda and while I’m near certain the claims and statistics employed in these sections are legitimate, it’s uneasy seeing them presented in a fashion that is so often associated with the spread of misinformation, especially in 2015 – it doesn’t help that the end of the film serves an advertisement for The Hunting Ground‘s website either. The score is comprised of an extremely cheesy and heavy-handed selection of pop tunes that often distract from and even soften the impact of very horrific revelations – it’s unclear if this is intentional, I have to assume it is because Lady Gaga recorded the song ‘Till it Happens to You’ specifically for the project, but regardless, it is a failed experiment that works to undercut Dick’s arguments and makes for a very strange viewing experience. It’s uneasy territory coming from one of this generation’s finest documentary film-makers and hopefully marks a brief transgression, rather than a permanent change in style.
Although The Hunting Ground is surely Dick’s weakest of his recent collaborations with producer Amy Ziering, it is still a (mostly) well crafted, deeply important film that, due to its scope and the prestige of his previous film The Invisible War, will see a much needed light shined on the issue of College rape and the systematic cover-ups of such crimes that occur across America. In spite of its inconsistencies it’s still emotionally effective and I’d be lying if I didn’t say moments had me in tears. Many people in positions of power have come out and said that The Invisible War convinced them to take action against sexual assault in the military,3 and I can only think that The Hunting Ground will help enact similar change, given the traction we’re already seeing behind this film which is yet to see any sort of VOD or home video release. Dick and Ziering are fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better place for all, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation – I look forward to their next project and hope that they continue along this trajectory. The constructive execution of The Hunting Ground may be a large step back for Dick, but the message is an important and powerful one that we’ve already seen spark further mainstream debate and traction for the cause promoted. On the back of this fact alone, the film is more than worthy of your time.
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