Many of the women who speak about their experiences in the Kirby Dick documentary The Hunting Ground share one disturbing tic: a nervous laugh.
The laugh is heartbreaking, for it is so clearly a mechanism to stanch their tears. It comes out of nowhere when the women (and a few men) talk about sexual assaults they suffered as college students, and the abhorrent treatment by institutions of higher learning when they bravely chose to report the incidents.
Dick's documentary is released as campus sexual assault hits the headlines once again. Late last month, police in Charlottesville, Va., announced that they had found no evidence of rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house implicated in a controversial 2014 Rolling Stone article.
The Hunting Ground is a clear piece of survivors' advocacy. Dick's purpose is not to be fair to both sides. But is that such a problem when no one has been fair to his subjects?
The accomplished director (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) has chronicled sexual assault before. He tackled rape in the military in 2012's The Invisible War, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Dick and producer Amy Ziering got the idea for The Hunting Game while touring for War, and found that many women on campus shared similar stories.
Dick structures The Hunting Ground around Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two University of North Carolina students who bonded over their shared experiences of rape and have spent much of their early 20s fighting for victims' rights. Clark was raped before classes even started her freshman year. In 2013, they filed a Title IX suit against their university.
The women are allowed to speak for themselves. Clark and Pino, as well as the other high-achieving women interviewed, calmly recount their horrific stories. When they reported the incidents, they met resistance from campus administrators, who knew that the more sexual assaults logged, the less appealing their schools would look to both potential students and alumni donors.
That one sentiment repeats throughout: No matter how horrible the assaults, the schools' treatment of the women afterward was worse.
Take Erica Kinsman, giving her first on-camera interview. She starts her story by sharing a picture of herself as a little girl in a Florida State University cheerleader uniform and discusses her medical school aspirations. From there, she recalls being vilified after she accused Florida State University football star Jameis Winston of rape. Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy and remains a top draft pick.
Dick then brings his camera to an FSU game, where fans refer to Winston as Black Jesus and call Kinsman an attention-seeking groupie.
Would they change their minds if they heard Kinsman recount how the same police officers who watched bruises appear on her body as she sat in the ER discouraged her from filing a report and took 10 months to investigate her claims?
Maybe. But at least Kinsman finally gets to be heard.
The Hunting Ground *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Kirby Dick. With Annie Clark, Andrea Pino, Erica Kinsman. Distributed by RADiUS-TWC.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (language, disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault).
Playing at: Ritz Five.