Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Advocacy and Accuracy: Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground

The following review originally appeared in Critics at Large April 30 and I am reproducing on this website because the subject matter about sexual assault on American campuses and apparent official indifference is about transgression, a component of the Gothic. The review also addresses the transgression of the filmmakers whom I suggest are not entirely accurate in their advocacy documentary.

A scene from Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground.

“Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many woman and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse.” 
– Vice President Joe Biden at the 2015 Academy Awards 
The persuasive power of advocacy journalism and documentaries is undeniable, but they have their detractors in large part because they offer viewers only one perspective or one that is not even-handed. Think of the conversation around An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Oscar-winning film about Al Gore's efforts to explain global warning. Yet Guggenheim’s recent foray, He Named Me Malala, is an inspiring portrait of the Pakistani teenager and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, which I expect has few detractors, at least in the West. Or consider the highly popular Making of a Murderer, the Netflix series that revisits and forcibly challenges a decade-old murder conviction. This documentary series, reminiscent of Errol Morris’ 1988 pioneering The Thin Blue Line has elicited viewers’ visceral outrage about the original conviction. Although the filmmakers have been generally praised for their muckraking efforts, a few critics, notably Kathryn Schulz writing in The New Yorker, persuasively provides a counter argument.

A similar controversy has been stirred by the incendiary The Hunting Ground about the prevalence of sexual assault on American campuses and the apparent indifference of university administrators in addressing the complaints of the victims. Writer-director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who previously collaborated on the documentaries Outrage, about homophobia among American political elites, and The Invisible War, about sexual assault and its cover up in the military, do provide a disturbing picture of a serious problem. If seen in isolation from the critical responses to the film, most viewers likely will be enraged by what has been occurring on American campuses as portrayed in The Hunting Ground.


The filmmakers contend that rape has reached epidemic proportions on American campuses – one in five women are likely to be assaulted, and only a tiny percentage of these assaults are ever reported to the police. The blizzard of statistics and statements posted on the screen along with the observations and insights of the experts are both unnerving and controversial, particularly the allegation that campus rape is “a highly calculated, premeditated crime,” one typically committed by a small percentage of serial predators. Likewise, the same rate of false reporting applies to sexual violence as it does any other crime in America – between two and eight percent. But the power of The Hunting Ground is largely derived by the many courageous women and some men who tell their heart-rending stories directly to the camera. There is no effort to conceal their identities and real names. One of the most disturbing is narrated by Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student who accused star quarterback Jameis Winston (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) of drugging and raping her. Her allegations created a firestorm of controversy and victim-blaming rhetoric by his supporters. Her story supports a larger claim in the film that sports teams and fraternities are virtually exempt from any criminal investigation because they are so germane to the university’s funding that administrators will do almost anything not to alienate their alumni donors. One of the film’s central characters, Annie Clark, a pre-med freshman at University of North Carolina, has her head slammed into a wall before she is assaulted. A college counsellor suggests that Clark think of her rape like a lost football game, and to re-evaluate what she might have done differently. The film’s other central spokesperson Andrea Pino, another student at UNC, is dragged into a bathroom and raped. These along with other women who narrate their stories, and the disbelieving responses they receive, renders a powerful resonance to the song Lady Gaga composed and recorded for the film, “Till It Happens to You,” and later powerfully sung on this year's Oscar telecast. It reminds listeners they can’t know the trauma of sexual violence unless it has happened to them.

In the aftermath of their assaults, the psyches of the survivors are in tatters. Several young women describe the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares (one girl’s were so vivid she woke up bleeding – she was trying to scratch her invisible rapist away from her neck), insomnia, panic attacks, self-harm, and suicide attempts. One young woman can barely utter a few words before dissolving in tears. Survivors have difficulty concentrating and attending classes. In desperation some of the women seek help from university administrators.

Those who do complain are dismissed by administrators, often female, who either blame them for what occurred or attempt to excuse the male student’s behaviour. Indeed, there are more provisions for helping the accused than addressing the plight of the survivors. As a result, the film excoriates administrators for their insensitivity and lack of student protection. Despite their public rhetoric – which we see over and over again – that they are committed to making the university a safe place, they are portrayed as cowardly or in a state of denial because their priority is protecting the reputation of their institutions and avoiding bad publicity and being sued by alleged perpetrators. Rape statistics are poor advertising for enrollment, even worse as incentives for alumni donations, educational grants and above all, funding sports programs. A viewer could almost get the impression that they would tacitly agree with the young man who has no clue as to what constitutes sexual assault when he rhetorically asks a reporter: “Because you had sex and a woman said no, are you a rapist automatically because of that?” I do not know how prevalent this asinine attitude is on American campuses but the film documents how one woman was so devastated by the lack of support she received that she commits suicide, a tragedy told by her grieving father. One indication of official disdain for responding to this issue is that it reveals that faculty members who advocate on behalf of survivors either are not given tenure or are dismissed from their jobs. The film suggests that university responses across the country range from inaction to massive institutional cover-up.

Student activists Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark. (Photo:Thomas Patterson)

One of the encouraging developments in the film is the transformation of some of the rape survivors into activists. Pino contacted Clark to form an organization to put their stories out there, and encouraged other women from across the country to do the same through videos, e-mails and social media. The movement found its legal focus in a Title IX requirement (a rule against discrimination by allowing an unsafe environment). They learn how to file civil complaints when schools turn their backs, which results in putting about 100 colleges under investigation, but they also incur some vile responses from social media, again demonstrating that whistleblowers can be demonized.

Their political activity dovetails with the Obama administration – the President makes a brief appearance in the film supporting the survivors – which has made redressing the issue a national priority by launching an “It’s On Us” campaign to end sexual assault on campuses, an initiative that deserves cautious approval, cautious for reasons that will appear below. As outlined by an article in The New York Review of Books, the White House in 2014 released guidelines on how campus rapes are to be treated. In a move that continues to be controversial, it also released the names of 55 schools – from Harvard College to the University of California, Berkeley – that were under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling (or mishandling) of rape accusations. At issue is whether they violated federal laws under Title IX. Since institutions found in violation of Title IX risk having their federal funding withdrawn, these recommendations were in effect government directives and schools have no alternative but to respond accordingly. Most notably, the Department of Education instructed schools to establish “victim-centered” tribunals and use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when judging the innocence or guilt of an accused student. Unlike a criminal trial in which the standard for a guilty verdict is beyond a reasonable doubt, the bar of culpability is lower in tribunals and civil cases. Given the evidence presented, the question is: who is more likely to be telling the truth? Unfortunately, the new rules go beyond what has been generally accepted in these venues. By rightfully insisting on fair and equal treatment for sexual assault complainants, the new directive implies the presumption of a complainant’s victimhood and that she or he must always be believed, effectively cancelling the presumption of a defendant’s innocence.

Because the focus in The Hunting Ground is on the survivors being heard, no one directly addresses the issue I raised in the last two sentences. Yet when I looked more carefully at the critical responses that questioned its accuracy, I began to harbour certain reservations. For instance, writing in Slate, Emily Yoffe argues that one of the cases not mentioned above reveals discrepancies between what the young woman says on camera and her own legal testimony. Furthermore, Harvard University, according to the film, was guilty of official indifference but Yoffe demonstrates that the university did take the case seriously, undertook a thorough investigation, expelled the alleged assailant, and re-admitted him four years later after they completed their review. Similarly, the young man was tried and found guilty of a misdemeanour in the court system, an appropriate response when one reads Yoffe’s detailed account of this case. After an exhaustive examination of this case, Yoffe contends that he was not a “rapist” or a “predator,” but that the contretemps was
…a story of an ambiguous sexual encounter among young adults that almost destroyed the life of the accused, a young black man with no previous record of criminal behavior. It’s a story that demonstrates how deeply the filmmakers’ politics colored their presentation of the facts – and how deeply flawed their influential film is as a result.
Her lengthy persuasive article comments only on this single case that takes up a few minutes in the picture, but it does undercut the power of the film and I think does a disservice to the other survivors profiled. The controversy continued when nineteen Harvard Law School professors signed a document criticizing the movie – one of them, Jeannie Suk, writing a piece for The New Yorker. The filmmakers responded to their criticism by making a statement in the Harvard Crimson that by revealing their bias, they had contributed to a “hostile environment” at the university. As Suk points out, this is a serious allegation, given that the university could be in violation of Title IX and any professor contributing to an unsafe setting could be potentially disciplined. She is uneasy about the emerging axiom that all rape survivors must be believed. True, it serves “as a corrective to hundreds of years in which rape victims were systematically disbelieved and painted as liars, sluts, or crazies,” an assumption that is abundantly in evidence in The Hunting Ground. Also, given that sexual assault cases are notoriously underreported gives further credence to some that the victim must always be believed so as to encourage more assault victims to come forward. But as Suk suggests, are we not swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction? Does this new credo not violate the principle of due process and the right of the accused or the respondent to defend himself? Suk rightly acknowledges that “sexual assault is a serious and insidious problem that occurs with intolerable frequency” and “fighting it entails, among other things, dismantling the historical bias against victims, particularly black victims.” But she wisely counsels: “a few claims [that] turn out to be false do not mean that all, most, or even many claims are wrongful.”

 I wish the kind of nuance and criticism expressed by these two writers might have been injected into The Hunting Ground. It would have in no way undermined the film’s powerful message. Advocacy is not incompatible with accuracy. The vast majority of sexual assaults recounted in the film have not been challenged. I have no doubt, for example, that the claim made by the professional quarterback, Jameis Winston, that his sexual contact with Erica Kinsman was consensual, is spurious. An athlete’s prowess, especially on American campuses, takes priority over his character. Athletes have become accustomed to the culture of entitlement. Nor do I question the film’s assertion that the universities are too concerned with protecting their image and keeping potential alumni donors happy by not touching the fraternities with their “unregulated bars” that sometimes serve doctored alcohol. I suspect that this moving film is widely being shown on campuses, as it should be, and generating discussion that might educate men. But I also propose that thoughtful criticism should not be dismissed.

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