Sundance 2015: ‘The Hunting Ground’ exposes an ‘epidemic’ of rape in …

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Hunting Ground’: Sundance Review.

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — The campus rape epidemic is given a face, dozens of them in fact, in “The Hunting Ground,” director Kirby Dick’s sobering investigation into the systematic silencing of sexual assault victims which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. When a group of Oregon football players chanted “No means no” after their Rose Bowl victory over Florida State, an unmistakable taunting reference to the rape accusations against Gators quarterback Jameis Winston, the moment demonstrated how sexual assault on campus is one of the hottest of contemporary issues.

Through an expert juxtaposition of personal accounts and damning statistics, the film paints a brutal picture of university administrators more concerned with keeping campus crime statistics low than helping the students who have come forward to report rape. The fest can function as a discovery ground for emerging talent (Quentin Tarantino, Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe), a place where familiar performers are brushed off and made new by the transgressive strength of independent film (Patton Oswalt, Pierce Brosnan), or as one-stop shopping for major studios that snap up small, heartfelt indie efforts to bring them before a massive mainstream audience and win fancy awards (Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash). But no fictional chiller can top the combination of shock and outrage felt watching The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus rape that reveals a problem far greater and more institutionally tolerated than many people would have expected. There’s even a backlash underway from a sinister faction who seek to discredit the victims one by one and distract readers from the larger issues at play around the colleges’ and universities’ culpable attempts to cover up incidents. Appearing with four of the survivors in the film at a Q&A after the screening, which received a standing ovation, he added: “This is a problem at schools all across the country,” Dick said.

It’s an evil that thrives, even in broad daylight, at many major colleges and universities, Harvard and Yale and other Ivy League schools among them. The film was produced by Amy Ziering and directed by Kirby Dick, the team behind a number of provocative documentaries including most recently “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the military.

Dick and his producer Amy Ziering set themselves the ambitious quest of creating a documentary that limns a bigger picture, creating a unifying narrative that makes some kind of larger public sense of what seems on the surface like a series of disparate, intensely private experiences. Beyond the dizzying statistics and myriad talking heads, ranging from former campus police guards to clinical psychologists, the heart of the movie is rooted in the personal stories, whether it’s a father describing the rape of his daughter who committed suicide, or the assault victims themselves, some of whom are men. The film not only talks to students, but administrators, parents and even a police officer at Notre Dame who felt like the school properly handle rape cases. Audiences see Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, both of whom were assaulted at the University of North Carolina, and subsequently ignored and belittled by their administrators, rally support around the country for their End Rape on Campus movement and filing a Title IX complaint against UNC. Given that the film levels a withering j’accuse against a complex skein of heterogeneous institutions and organizations, it will have a harder road ahead inspiring organizational reform in the same way The Invisible War did, but there’s no doubt it will get audiences debating and talking when it goes on release via RADiUS in March and when it is broadcast later this year on CNN.

The filmmaking may not be noteworthy, but it is the stories that are both illuminating and essential and will likely not leave a dry eye in the audience. Dozens are seen on camera telling their stories, most of which involved beatings, rapes and the administering of “roofies” and other substances to subdue victims prior to the assaults. The emotional center of the film is, instead, a small handful of young women who, with scant resources and zero support outside of one other, used their collective wits — and a shrewd application of Title IX — to start a cascade of inquiry that ended in a Department of Education investigation of dozens of top schools. Beneath the dark surface is an uplifting tale of grassroots activism, of courage and conviction in the face of unspeakably horrible circumstances, of how rape survivors can fight back by showing their faces, stating their names and pursuing justice for themselves and others.

One rapist, who agreed to be interviewed on camera with his face blurred, said he found it encouraging to prey upon women because it was so easy to do and so easy to escape the consequences. One interviewee puts that in perspective by flipping the script and imagining educational institutions writing to parents to let them know that one in four of their children will be a victim of a drive-by shooting, and then going on to thank them for their tuition fees. She said she’d hear from women at every campus, telling her: “You know this happened here.” The documentary took aim at a large number of colleges. The first figure is the upwards percentage of women — roughly one in five — who will be sexually assaulted while attending a U.S. college or university. (The film doesn’t mention any Canadian campuses).

They researched Title IX, the federal mandate that grants students the right to an education without sex discrimination, and filed a 34-page complaint in 2013 that was taken up by the DOE. The bombardment of fact, although deftly — and yes, sometimes humorously — delivered through montage sequences, could all too easily lead to viewer compassion fatigue were it not for the adroit way Dick and Ziering cement the story with human interest. That list included Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Florida State University, UC Berkeley, Arizona State University, UC Davis, USC, Swarthmore College, George Mason University, Amherst College, Brandeis University and Occidental College, among others.

Ziering, who did many of the interviews, was especially moved by talking to Tom Seeberg, whose daughter, Lizzy, committed suicide in the aftermath of her allegation of a sexual attack against Notre Dame football player Prince Shembo, who was never charged with a crime. “I began to cry, I had to pull myself together,” she remembers, tearing up again at the memory. “Another one who broke my heart was a girl from Berkeley who hadn’t told her parents yet. The movie relies on startling interviews with campus rape survivors, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to their ordeals but nonetheless speak out unflinchingly before the camera. They have since formed the “IX Network,” a national coalition to help others file similar claims against other schools, and though it seems they still have an enormous task before them, their accomplishments are impressive. I was so upset, she gave me her teddy bear.” Kinsman’s story of her experience with Winston is of a piece with the others, and her detailing of the specifics of the alleged event is chilling. (Winston has claimed the sex was consensual.

The reason for the lack of official action, the doc persuasively shows, is the fear of destroying the brand names and alumni endowments of schools, which tally in the billions of dollars. No criminal charges were filed against him, and the school took no disciplinary action.) The film notes that the police in Tallahassee, where Florida State is located, did not investigate Kinsman’s report for 10 months, which, the filmmakers say, is an example of the way the power of college sports to earn money and build fanatical loyalty works against women who report being raped by athletes. Harvard University alone is in the midst of a $6-billion capital campaign, much of it funded by wealthy former frat brothers who would be unlikely to contribute if a criminal investigation of their fraternity was underway. Cleverly interpreting the federal law Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, to name and shame schools that have failed to guarantee students’ safety from sexual assault and thus violated their rights, Clark and Pino are seen here gathering evidence from other victims, traveling the country, talking to the press and attending events to raise awareness about the issue. By keeping sexual assaults off the books, the film alleges, the schools keep intact lucrative alumni endowments and prestigious rankings that entice prospective students.

Schools are also very reluctant to punish star athletes who commit sex crimes because they want the status and money that come with being the home of successful athletes, among them including Jameis Winston, a quarterback from Florida State U. who’s accused of raping fellow student Erica Kinsman (she’s interviewed on camera). From director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who co-wrote with Jessica Congdon, the film purports to explore “how our culture’s narrow definition of masculinity is harming our boys, men and society at large and unveils what we can do about it.” The former notion is based on the idea that gender is a “social construct,” largely rejecting the long-held belief that gender is somehow hard-wired into our brains; that male and female are vastly more similar than dissimilar, and that the modern culture of machismo has been handed down through generations. Numerous campus bigwigs implicitly are shamed throughout for their failure to curb sexual violence on campus, and almost none agree to speak to the filmmakers, but surely chancellors and university presidents of the future rightly will laud these young women for their campaigning efforts with honorary degrees.

Both the women, who described how they were raped early in their college years, eventually formed an organization to help other victim of rape at campuses across the nation. If you look back on the game, what would you have done differently?” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and California Senator Barbara Boxer were among those in attendance, as was Diane Warren who wrote an original song — “Til It Happens To You” — for the film, which is performed by Lady Gaga. Newsom also collects an array of men and boys—broken-home school kids, convicts, football players, teachers and youth activists— to suggest that when men suppress their emotions, as they’re told to do, their internalized feelings of anger and frustration eventually explode into violence and conflict.

Likewise, the worship of star athletes and school teams, and the massive sums of money at stake in college sports are shown to be part of the problematic puzzle that leads to the shockingly low rates of prosecution. And while there are certainly some truths in The Mask You Live In, which seems to treat its subjects tenderly and with care, it ultimately comes across as a bunch of women filmmakers telling men how they’d be better off behaving more like … well, women. Special praise is due to editors Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra and Kim Roberts, who keep up the propulsive pace and provide wry counterpoint through juxtapositions.

Scarier than Blair: Sixteen years ago this month, Sundance premiered The Blair Witch Project, an indie spook show about three young filmmakers who get lost in the woods while searching for an evil crone of legend. It was filmed in Ontario in a ghost lumber town called Kiosk near Algonquin Park, which Eggers convincingly transformed into a place of menace and fear for the struggling pioneer family of his story. Eggers exhibits mastery of form and menace, as well as light and dark, in conjuring a fright fest that went over like gangbusters at the 9 a.m. press screening I attended. Rauch is Hope Ann Greggory, a fictional champion gymnast who takes a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics but who never finds anything else to do with her life in her small Ohio town of Amherst. The comedy is rocky and frequently lewd — there’s a hilarious sex scene that only gymnasts could do — and no one is predicting gold for The Bronze.

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