Documentary director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering can often be found in the eye of a hurricane. Three years ago, they teamed up on "The Invisible War," and now they are back with the equally devastating "The Hunting Ground."
The former film, an Emmy winner that was also Oscar nominated, was such a shocking look at rape in the military that it led to Pentagon policy changes and congressional reforms.
Now, with "Hunting Ground," the team is exploring another hot-button issue that is both similar and different, an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.
Like its predecessor, "Hunting Ground" bristles with unnerving statistics: for instance, that one in five college women, and one in 33 college men, will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus, adding up to an estimated 100,000 assaults for the coming year. But only 5% of these get reported.
Skeptics have challenged those statistics, but "Hunting Ground" also features heartbreaking first-person interviews, often conducted by producer Ziering off camera, about the specifics of the attacks and their aftermath. Given that the colleges and universities mentioned are geographically and culturally diverse, including Berkeley, Tufts, Yale, Swarthmore and USC, it's striking how similar the situations, as well as the official responses, turn out to be.
These are not, the filmmakers emphasize, he-said she-said situations. Rather, these assaults are often the work of calculated predators who target victims and wait for opportunities. (In an especially chilling moment, one convicted predator goes on camera to describe how it's done.) One statistic cited by "Hunting Ground" is that serial predators are responsible for 91% of all sexual assaults on campus, with each predator committing an average of six assaults.
As in the military, most survivors of assault at college feel that the often-hostile, disbelieving, blame-the-victim response of the institution they believed in was as difficult to deal with as the attack itself. A case at James Madison University in Virginia, where perpetrators were expelled after they graduated, is shown provoking outrage on the part of "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart.
It was bitter dissatisfaction with how the University of North Carolina treated them that led UNC students Annie Clark and Andrea Pino to become friends and then take a more activist route.
"Hunting Ground" had considerable access to these two women as they first came up with the idea of filing a Title IX anti-gender discrimination complaint against their school and then traveled the country putting together an organization called End Rape on Campus to help women at other schools do the same. The positive energy this campaign evokes is a much-needed bright spot in a story that doesn't have a lot of them.
For, as "Hunting Ground" thoroughly details, powerful factors are arrayed against students who report being assaulted, starting with what writer Caitlin Flanagan calls "the American fraternity industry."
With frat houses being what one interviewee describes as "unregulated bars," sometimes serving doctored alcohol, "Hunting Ground" reports that fraternity men are three times more likely than other men to commit rape. But a confluence of financial factors apparently makes these institutions all but untouchable.
Statistics provided by the film also indicate that athletes are involved in a higher-than-average number of assaults, but because big-time sports are such moneymakers, little is done by colleges in this area as well.
Some of the film's most wrenching first-person stories involve accusations against athletes, including the story of St. Mary's College of Indiana student Lizzy Seeberg, related by her father, Tom, of how his daughter committed suicide.
An athlete is also involved in the best-known incident that "The Hunting Ground" deals with, as Erica Kinsman goes public for the first time to tell in detail her side of the story involving Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback she accuses of sexual assault. (No charges were filed against Winston, and he was cleared of violating the school's student code.)
"The Hunting Ground" posits that money keeps these centers of higher learning from doing more about these complaints. Colleges and universities are determined to protect their reputations, fearing that willingness to acknowledge a problem would be bad for business. Fear of retaliation often keeps faculty and administration from speaking up for students or talking at all, and six university presidents declined to be interviewed here. If it does nothing else, "The Hunting Ground" should make that kind of evasion more difficult in the future.
'The Hunting Ground'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes