If you attended one of the screenings of The Hunting Ground at Shenandoah University or the Alamo Drafthouse, chances are you did not walk into it blindly. Thanks to the trailer and promotions, you had a pretty good idea of what was to unfold. First, an obligatory “trigger warning” appears on the darkened screen and you’re feeling unsettled in your seat. Next, the iconic “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background as a montage of excited high school girls pose expectantly in front of their laptop screens. As they open their admissions emails you hear a yelp of joy: “I got in!” Then, in a matter of cinematic seconds, all adolescent elation fades from the screen.
The rest of the film, the stark reality part, is a compilation of women’s testimonies about horrific sexual assaults endured on or close to their college campuses. The stories are disturbingly similar: a group of girls attend a fraternity social (substitute town bar or house party here), are given a drug-laced drink (substitute liquor shots or a beer funnel here) and then sexually assaulted by an acquaintance (substitute frat boy or college athlete here).
The film revolves around two survivors: Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, now graduates of UNC. They decide to make the “personal political” (a familiar mantra from the 1970’s women’s movement) and file a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education; this bold move spawns a federal investigation into the handling (or mishandling) of sexual assault cases at several dozen other schools.
At the heart of all of these cases are the multiple forces that silence victims: from the university administrators who belittle them to the college peers who “diss” them to the athletic donors who harass them. For example, Pino was advised by an administrator to look at her rape as a football game and consider what she “might have done differently.”
While Clark’s and Pino’s stories have a happy ending, of sorts, as they become founders of the advocacy organization End Rape on Campus Now and mentor student victims across the country, others’ endings are far more bleak. Rachel, a St. Mary’s College student who had been raped in a Notre Dame dormitory, cannot get through her story without breaking down.
The penultimate narrative is the sad but matter-of-fact testimony of Erica Kinsman, a Florida State student who recounts being drugged in a bar (ironically by a stranger who had stepped in to rescue her from a stalker) and then driven to an apartment where she is raped on a bathroom floor. As it turns out, her accused rapist is Florida State star quarterback Jamies Winston. Kinsman’s story comes unexpectedly late in the documentary at a point where viewers, now versed in campus rape horror, can pretty much guess how hers is going to play out (hint: Winston goes on the win the Heisman trophy).
UNC, Notre Dame and Florida State are not the only schools highlighted by filmmaker Kirby Dick, who also directed “The Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the military. Students, including male victims, from Harvard, UC Berkeley, James Madison, George Mason, Occidental, among many colleges and universities tell their stories on camera as well.
While The Hunting Ground is completely engrossing it also feels excruciatingly long—most likely because our minds and bodies are in a static state of discomfort the entire length of the film. The interviews are repetitive by design so we cannot forget that these scenarios play out all over college campuses with no end in sight.