In The Hunting Ground, their searing new documentary about rape on American college campuses, writer/director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering do something that journalists are not supposed to: They bury the lead. Dick and Ziering conducted an on-camera interview with the victim of one of the most high-profile alleged sexual assaults of recent years, who speaks publicly for the first time, but they don't introduce her until relatively late in the movie. The filmmakers have good reason for doing so.
This is an article from the March 9, 2015 issue
For the first two thirds of the documentary, Dick and Ziering do the work of establishing that their subject is nothing short of an epidemic, one that, until recently, has been largely hidden. Joyful home videos, set to "Pomp and Circumstance," depicting teenagers learning of their college acceptances—"I got in!" they shout—quickly transition to a steady stream of haunted young faces with harrowing stories to tell. These young women (and some men) are not just traumatized by their assaults but also by the aftermaths, in which they sought help and support from powerful institutions and generally were denied both.
Colleges and universities, the filmmakers contend, don't want to acknowledge the problem—it's terrible p.r.—and, often, they do not. According to the film, which cites the 2014 U.S. Senate Survey, 40% of colleges reported zero sexual assaults in '12. We learn that between '01 and '13, the University of North Carolina received 136 reports of assaults and expelled none of the accused. Between 1998 and 2013, the University of Virginia received 205 reports and also expelled nobody, although it did kick out 183 students for cheating and other honor board violations.
College athletes are not the film's central focus, but it tells us that while less than 4% of college men are student-athletes, that group is responsible for more than 19% of reported assaults. The latest high-profile athlete to force the topic into headlines is Duke basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from the team in January; on Monday, The (Duke) Chronicle reported that the ban was spurred by multiple accusations of sexual assault last year against him. The film, which does not cover the Sulaimon case, suggests that because athletic departments wield so much power, athletes are very likely to evade punishment. "When they walk across campus, it's not like any other student walking across campus," says Don McPherson, the former Syracuse quarterback and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who is interviewed in the film. "There's a multibillion-dollar industry that wraps around these young men."
At Notre Dame, for instance—where Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at neighboring Saint Mary's College, reported in 2010 that she was assaulted by a football player—campus police were forbidden from contacting athletes at any athletic facility and from asking any athletic employee for help in contacting them. Seeberg committed suicide 10 days after the incident, after having received a threatening text from a friend of the player telling her that "messing with notre dame football is a bad idea." At that time police had yet to interview her alleged assailant. Says Pat Cottrell, a longtime member of the Notre Dame police force who retired before the Seeberg incident, "My bosses were saying that they had empathy for victims of crimes, but it was like I told them, that 'Talk is cheap, and that's all it is with you guys is talk. You don't really support victims of crimes.'"
It is not until 72 minutes into The Hunting Ground that Dick and Ziering show their interview with the film's most prominent subject—a necessary choice, for if it had come earlier, it might have overwhelmed their broader narrative. Her name is Erica Kinsman, and she was a premed student with a six-class course load when, in December 2012, her life was changed forever. Kinsman tells of a night that she began at a bar near campus and ended watching bruises appear on her body as she lay in a hospital bed, the result of an assault during which, she says, a fellow student pushed her head into a bathroom floor as he raped her. It wasn't until the next semester that she learned the identity of that student, when his name was called in a class they shared: Jameis Winston, the future quarterback for the Florida State football team.
Over the next months, the film alleges, the Tallahassee authorities dawdled in investigating Kinsman's claims, and Winston stayed on the field to lead the Seminoles to a national championship and to win the Heisman Trophy. Kinsman was smeared as a fabulist and an opportunist intent on bringing down a famous athlete; fans threatened to burn down her sorority house. "As soon as I saw this story break, I thought how terribly, terribly unfair it is ... to this young man," Skip Bayless said on ESPN. The rape kit wasn't tested until almost a year after the assault. While Winston's DNA matched the sample, state attorney and FSU alumnus Willie Meggs declined to press charges, and Winston was later cleared of violating the school's code of conduct.
"I think I did not have sufficient evidence to prove that he sexually assaulted her against her will," Meggs says in the film. "I think things that happened there that night were not good." As Winston is drafted into the NFL next month, likely No. 1 overall, anyone who has watched The Hunting Ground will be hard-pressed not to think of Erica Kinsman, who has since left FSU. "I know it was the right thing to do to come forward," she says. "But investigator [Scott] Angulo was right whenever he said that I would be driven out of Tallahassee."
Another reason why Dick and Ziering likely delayed Kinsman's appearance in The Hunting Ground is that their film is not so much a work of impartial journalism but one of advocacy—Kinsman's emotional interview is treated more as a narrative device than as breaking news. The film has a strong and laudable mission, but that means that certain elements of a terribly complicated problem are somewhat glossed over. Perhaps the most shocking of the many outrageous, meticulously footnoted facts the filmmakers present is that 16% to 20% of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted in college, though the figure is in dispute; other studies suggest that the annual incidence rate is well under 1%. The film also rejects the idea that false accusations represent a real issue, as between 92% and 98% of reports are estimated to be credible. But Dick and Ziering offer no solutions for how campus authorities should balance the need for swift and severe disciplinary responses with everyone's right to due process.
Even so, The Hunting Ground succeeds in bringing into the light crimes that were once conducted and largely suffered in the dark, and empowers its survivors, including Erica Kinsman. Thanks to activists like Annie Clark and Andrea Pino—former UNC students who suffered on-campus assaults and who are central subjects of the film—more than 90 universities are currently under federal investigation for violating Title IX, the gender equity law that guarantees all students the right to an equal education, and the Obama Administration has frequently addressed the issue. The problem isn't going away; in addition to the Sulaimon news, last week Louisville dismissed basketball guard Chris Jones from the team, just before he pled not guilty to charges of rape and sodomy. But it is no longer hidden.