'The Hunting Ground' takes look at campus sexual assault
The documentary provides insight, but leaves out some essential context
IF THERE was a 1-in-4 chance of your children being victim to a drive-by shooting while at college, would you still send them off to school?
This question is posed by "The Hunting Ground," a documentary by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, creators of the U.S. military rape doc "The Invisible War." "The Hunting Ground" explores the epidemic of rape on college campuses, frequently repeating the widely questioned statistic that "1 in 4 or 5" college women will be sexually assaulted.
"The Hunting Ground" puts faces to the victims of these vicious crimes. Hearing so many stories of trauma is exhausting and overwhelming, as it should be. Bombarding the viewer with statistics, tears and painful recollections is supposed to be emotionally taxing.
The film focuses on how difficult it is for victims to get help, even after they've reported the crime to college administrators.
The title is pulled from a description of the college campus as a "prime hunting ground" for repeat sexual offenders. This is far from the film's only reference to predator-prey imagery.
The filmmakers did many things well, like giving screen time, albeit brief, to male sexual-assault victims. Because rape is so often seen as an issue that affects only women, the crime is even harder to report as a male victim.
Another unique perspective comes from retired Notre Dame security guard Pat Cottrell, who responded to the scene of an on-campus sexual assault. When Cottrell and other officers attempted to reach the alleged perpetrator - a Notre Dame football player - for questioning, they were stonewalled by school policies that prevent campus police from contacting athletes while they are in an athletic facility. Officers also aren't allowed to ask athletic employees for assistance in contacting athletes. It's no news that student-athletes get perks of protection, but hearing the details is both off-putting and enlightening.
The filmmakers also did their due diligence by reaching out to the officials from the schools discussed for comment, even though the majority declined to be interviewed.
However, there are some points in the film where crucial context is absent, as in the case of Lizzy Seeberg. Seeberg was a St. Mary's College student who committed suicide after she reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player, who has since been cleared of wrongdoing.
Emily Yoffe, of Slate.com, points out that Seeberg had previously been treated for anxiety and depression before the assault, including her therapist noting suicidal thoughts. While this information doesn't make Seeberg's death any less tragic, its absence appears to be more than an oversight.
Something else missing: a solid definition of sexual assault. Is it always rape, or can an unwanted kiss also constitute sexual assault? An animated graphic illustrates the absurdity of some colleges' "punishments" for these crimes - a poster board, an essay, one day's suspension. During this, it seems crucial to know if these assignments were all for the same crime.
These instances aside, the film does an excellent job of illustrating how pervasive the problem is for college women. When asked what SAE stands for - the letters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity responsible for the Oklahoma University racist chant video - women at various universities reply, "Sexual Assault Expected," some even with a chuckle.
The film's picturesque cinematography of campus greens and majestic buildings is beautiful, like a live-action brochure for prospective students. The images belie the contrast between the campus PR departments, which choose to portray their schools by keeping hush-hush on rape to lower statistics, and the gruesome reality of the crimes that actually occur there.
As long as the viewer is watching with certain missing pieces of context in mind, "The Hunting Ground" is a disturbing, well-made illustration of the campus rape epidemic. It's a must-see for incoming college freshmen and their parents, who are sending their daughters - and sons - off to the hunting ground.