The Hunting Ground: 'Like climate change deniers, there is an industry of rape deniers'

Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering explain why they made a film about sexual assault on campus, and why they choose topics that have typically been ignored or covered up

Why did you decide to make The Hunting Ground?

We had actually begun working on an entirely different film, and were continuing to screen our previous film, The Invisible War – about rape in the military – on college campuses. While there, women and men who had been assaulted in college came up and implored us to make a film about their experience.

We started investigating and found that assault on college campuses was pervasive, routinely covered up by colleges and universities, and the public was blithely unaware of the problem. We quickly put aside our other film and began working on this one – sensing the topic was so explosive that we could create a powerful and emotional cinematic experience that would resonate with audiences.

It’s important if you make investigative films that your research is solid and comprehensive, and to convey that information cogently to the public. If you’re following developments in real time you have to be very nimble and ready for unexpected events and the shifting personal experiences of your film subjects.

This was especially true in The Hunting Ground, where we began documenting the rise of a new student movement within months of its inception, covering our subjects from being lone voices at their university to being advisers to Congress and the White House.

Did you meet any resistance?

We were surprised by how difficult it was to find high-level administrators to talk on camera. We were even more surprised at the level of fear among faculty – many were aware of the prevalence of assault on their campus but were afraid to speak up for fear of reprisals. We were disturbed that colleges and universities, normally considered places where free speech is protected and encouraged, were often retaliating against those within the institutions who spoke out about sexual assault on their campus.

Also, we wanted to show that the problem wasn’t confined to a few “rape” schools, but that it was happening at thousands of schools. To convey that, we undertook one of the most extensive investigations ever into college sexual assault, and began covering dozens of developing cases at campuses around the country.

There is a deep-seated denial in the US, and around the world, about the frequency of sexual assault throughout society. Like climate change deniers, there is an industry of rape deniers, internet trolls, media columnists and politicians, who, despite decades of statistics proving how prevalent rape is, deny that it is a problem and disparage survivors who come forward. The end result of these relentless and unjustified attacks is to discourage women and men from reporting sexual assault, thereby ensuring the problem continues.

Has anything changed?

The film has been creating awareness, influencing policy and changing lives. It has screened at more than 700 universities, high schools, community centres and government offices across the US, igniting long-silenced debate and policy change, school by school. The film has had high-profile screenings at the White House, Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education and the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association].

To date, more than 15 pieces of legislation have been written in four different state legislatures. When Governor Cuomo screened the film for state legislators in New York, the legislature swiftly passed a comprehensive new bill to help prevent sexual assaults on New York college campuses. Additionally, the film has instigated campaigns to combat sexual violence on campuses in countries around the world including Australia, France and the UK.

Since releasing the film, what has been particularly surprising is how vehement the retaliation has been against survivors, activists, researchers, journalists and film-makers who speak out about the problem.

What will you do next?

We focus on stories that deal with institutional injustice – and those whose stories are typically ignored, dismissed or marginalised. We’re particularly interested in injustices that institutions have kept covered up, often for decades, and that have received very little media attention.

In our previous four films, This Film Is Not Yet Rated on the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] film ratings system, Outrage on the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who vote against gay rights, The Invisible War and the Hunting Ground, not only was each film the first feature documentary on these subjects, but there was no comprehensive book on any of these subjects as well.

This becomes a significantly more difficult and ambitious undertaking, since it is much easier to make a documentary film if a book precedes it, as the book compiles most of the original research and provides a guideline as to how to make the film. What is lost by basing a film on a book is the opportunity for audiences to discover and understand an issue for the first time through a film, which can be intensely powerful and galvanising experience that can remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering will be introducing a screening of the Hunting Ground for Guardian Members at 8.40pm on Wednesday 21 October at Picturehouse Central, London W1. Find out how to book tickets.

To bring this documentary to your school or university please email Campus@TogetherFilms.org.

Contributor

Joanna Witt

The GuardianTramp

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