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The Hunting Ground

Examining the epidemic of sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses, this devastating documentary is a potent piece of filmmaking.
The Hunting Ground

It sounds like something out of a horror movie: women attacked, perpetrators allowed to run free, and authorities turning a blind eye. Alas, this frightful scenario springs from fact, not fiction. As The Hunting Ground tells, sexual assaults left unaddressed and unpunished are rife on college and university campuses across America. 

Indeed, writer/director Kirby Dick misses few opportunities to stress the severity of the situation – and though his film clearly crusades for a cause, his is a soapbox worth standing on and shouting from. After tackling the tough topic of rape in the U.S. military in his 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, the filmmaker turns his attention to the darkest corners of the nation's education system. Here, he exposes brand-conscious institutions putting their reputation before the welfare of their students in the most devastating of circumstances.

Two such pupils lead the charge, both survivors of separate attacks, years apart, at the same North Carolina university. As becomes too common a story throughout the feature's 103-minute running time, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark each suffered multiple waves of humiliation: first, the initial incident; then, the aftermath when they tried to report to the school's administration. The response they received either placed suspicion on the victims for acting inappropriately, or disciplined the offenders with little more than a slap on the wrist. More and more women – and a few men, too – join the chorus of recounting the same tale, the dates, places and particulars changing, but not the institutional reaction of blaming, shaming, ignorance, intimidation and misinformation. 

Dick isn't subtle about making his point at any turn, as his opening home-video montage of happy teenage girls rejoicing about their acceptance to college makes plain. Offering a before-and-after image of dreams dashed, the contrast between their elated expressions and the stony faces that follow ranks among The Hunting Ground's most unnerving elements, though much of the documentary's content contends for that label. That the statistics quoted – including the revelation that, according to some studies, as many as one in five female students in a U.S. university will be the victim of sexual assault – continue to paint a worsening picture prove equally eye-opening and gut-wrenching. The layers of personal accounts that give flesh to the figures are similarly harrowing, particularly when their narratives are complicated by sports players often given extra leeway in their conduct given the financial benefits their on-field performance can reap for the schools in question. 

Indeed, the details the film presents do the heavy lifting, supported by the talking heads of former faculty members, campus police, parents, psychologists and other experts as they are. Polish characterises the feature's formulaic technical compilation; however it is the stories, not the sights, that audiences will be drawn to. Whether elaborating on intimate particulars specific to their own attacks, or adding another voice to the masses, the individual tales told by courageous survivors resound with immediacy and urgency. Giving an outlet to sexual assault victims while placing their plights in national and political context is what makes The Hunting Ground such a potent piece of filmmaking. Anything else, including the overly histrionic original end-credits song by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, is unnecessary window dressing; the anger, horror and emotion is already apparent. 

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Hunting Ground
Director: Kirby Dick  
US, 2015, 103 mins

Sydney Film Festival

June 3 – 14, 2015

Revelation Perth International Film Festival

July 2 – 12, 2015

Sarah Ward

Monday 22 June, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay