From its first moments, the new documentary "The Hunting Ground" instills a sense of dread that is very, very tough to shake.
To the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance," filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering introduce us to a variety of high school graduates, captured on what appears to be cellphone camera footage, each receiving news of their college acceptance. "I got in!" one girl whoops with joy. We're being set up, deliberately, for a terrible turn of events. Deeply felt, if factually blurry at times, the film stokes our outrage over collegiate assault statistics, and the ways the campus fraternity and athletics subcultures get away with everything but murder.
The stories in "The Hunting Ground" break your heart. Dick and Ziering focus on rape survivors Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, former students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Clark says she was assaulted before her freshman year officially began. Think of the rape, she says she was told by an unnamed college administrator, as a football game: "If you look back, what would you have done differently?"
Throughout "The Hunting Ground," we hear painful variations on this theme of victim-blaming. There's a strong activist streak in the film, in its blunt advocacy and in its focus on Pino and Clark. In 2013, the women filed a Title IX charge against UNC for its handling of campus rape cases. The charge is now being examined by the U.S. Department of Education. The film follows Pino and Clark on a road trip all over the U.S., gathering support.
When the father of the late Lizzy Seeberg talks about his daughter, who committed suicide after an alleged assault on the St. Mary's College campus in Indiana, it's enough to make you weep. The man she accused was on the field, playing for the University of Notre Dame, at the time the police claimed to be conducting a search.
Former Florida State University quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston becomes a symbol of sports superstar privilege in "The Hunting Ground." In fresh interview footage, Erica Kinsman claims she was drugged and assaulted by Winston; the FSU quarterback, currently a top NFL draft pick, was cleared by FSU, and we're told that the law enforcement official investigating the case declined to collect DNA samples.
According to the film's sources and statistics, 90 percent of reported assaults are acquaintance rapes. Student athletes commit nearly one out of every five assaults. Eighty-eight percent of rapes go unreported; in 2012, nearly half of all U.S. colleges and universities reported zero sexual assaults on their campuses. Nobody believes that last figure, and few would question the filmmakers' implication that there is something cruel and hateful about what is happening, still, to so many of our children. When so much of the popular culture has turned into a booze-soaked frat house, is it any wonder that Sigma Alpha Epsilon's acronym has become a national sick joke, standing for "Sexual Assault Expected"?
Co-directors Dick and Ziering made "The Invisible War," which dealt with assaults reported and unreported within the U.S. military. "The Hunting Ground" covers a tremendous amount of ground, not always carefully. The on-camera subjects are dangerously light on official collegiate administrative voices, evasive or otherwise. The tension sometimes feels rigged, and the mushy, ominous wall of scare music from composer Miriam Cutler does not help our understanding. But Pino and Clark, and so many others, exhibit true heroism. The system didn't do right by them, and the film takes heart from their efforts to show why it needs fixing so badly.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault and for language).
Running time: 1:43