Sundance has a way of moving the cultural thermometer. The fest can function as a discovery ground for emerging talent (Quentin Tarantino, Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe), a place where familiar performers are brushed off and made new by the transgressive strength of independent film (Patton Oswalt, Pierce Brosnan), or as one-stop shopping for major studios that snap up small, heartfelt indie efforts to bring them before a massive mainstream audience and win fancy awards (Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash).
But every few years, a movie will arrive here to force an issue into the public consciousness just as it rises to the top of the national agenda. Acclaimed documentarian Kirby Dick did that in 2012 with The Invisible War, his blazing expose about the prevalence of sexual assault in the American armed forces, which was nominated for an Oscar and is widely credited with influencing government policy on the issue.
This year, Dick and his longtime producing partner Amy Ziering seem poised to similarly reframe the national conversation with their powerful documentary The Hunting Ground, which examines the “epidemic” of rape on U.S. college campuses. The film premiered here Friday to an awed crowd that included California senator Barbara Boxer and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Introducing the film at the Marc Theater, Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco hailed The Hunting Ground for “connecting all the dots where the news is just shards of information so that we understand the full picture.”
Set for a March theatrical release by Radius-TWC (and airing later in the year on CNN), it’s an unabashedly activist effort that puts a human face on an issue that has slowly been gaining momentum for the last couple of years: an estimated one in five women will face sexual assault during her time at college.
And the numbers put forward in The Hunting Ground paint a bleak portrait of personal safety during secondary education: 88 percent of women who are raped on campus do not report the assaults. And a mere 26 percent of reported rapes result in convictions.
The movie relies on startling interviews with campus rape survivors, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to their ordeals but nonetheless speak out unflinchingly before the camera. Even more shocking than the sheer volume of rapes reported, however, is the alleged systemic cover up of those crimes by American universities. The Hunting Ground accuses, with damning detail, top-tier schools including Harvard and Yale of allegedly under-reporting campus rape and discouraging victims from contacting law enforcement as a means of upholding their “brands.” “Rape is like a football game,” survivor Annie Clark recalls being told by a college administrator in the movie. “If you look back on the game, what would you have done differently?” “My rape was bad but the way I was treated was worse,” another survivor adds.
By keeping sexual assaults off the books, the film alleges, the schools keep intact lucrative alumni endowments and prestigious rankings that entice prospective students. Moreover, according to The Hunting Ground, many colleges across the country give repeat sexual offenders a “get out of jail” card—the men are seldom expelled and some have gone on to serially assault other women.
Exhibit A: The woman who accused Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston of rape in 2012 relates a hair-raising ordeal of being roofied in a local bar, kidnapped and allegedly assaulted. Then, after coming forward, she faced death threats and personal confrontations by FSU students that compelled her to drop out. Winston, meanwhile, went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
But in an era when consciousness about campus sexual assaults is having a “watershed moment,” when President Obama called the issue “an affront to our basic humanity,” The Hunting Ground puts forward heroes of the movement such as Andrea Pino and Annie Clark. Their grass-roots activism has compelled women to take steps to politicize their experience—to put a face and a name on an issue—and has contributed to 90 colleges across the country being investigated by the government for failing to prevent and handle cases of sexual assault.
Many people in the audience (including myself) left the theater feeling a mixture of outrage and despair. It was one of those indelible Sundance moments when the festival opens your eyes and breaks your heart.