PARK CITY, UT: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s The Hunting Ground starts on a note of deceptive hopefulness. To the familiar and triumphant strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” we see YouTube and home video images of hopeful high school seniors finding out that they’ve been accepted to their schools of their dreams. We see addresses and welcoming speeches from university administrators, promising them that these will be the most important and memorable years of their lives. It’s all light and exciting and even funny — and then they drop the hammer. The film’s title comes from an offhand mention by an interview subject, a rape survivor. It seems an apt description for how the rapist sees a college campus, and perhaps even for society at large, as another Sundance documentary called Hot Girls Wanted reiterates that the sexual exploitation of young women is not just an epidemic, but an industry.
The statistics in The Hunting Ground are not new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not shocking: 16-20 percent of women are sexually assaulted in college, 88 percent of women raped on campus don’t report, and the ratio of reports to expulsions is laughable. But numbers are one thing; Dick and collaborator Amy Ziering put these victims on camera, and let them tell their vivid and scary stories of sexual assaults by friends or strangers. This is not like the TV news reports of old, with victims hidden behind shadows, scrambled voices, and aliases. These women — in an environment of terrifyingly hostile threats and retribution — show their faces, say their names, and tell their stories.
As a filmmaker, Dick (whose previous films include This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Outrage, and The Invisible War — a kind of spiritual predecessor to this one) has always excelled at making a thorough, thoughtfully argued case. Here, he looks at this epidemic through several lenses: the methodology and frequency of serial rapists, the role of the fraternity system, the connection to the lucrative business of college athletics.
But their harshest indictments are for the people in power at these universities. “The problem isn’t the kids,” producer Ziering explained at a Q&A following Saturday’s Sundance screening. “It’s the schools. It’s the adjudication process.” No school wants to have a “sexual assault problem”; it’ll discourage attendance (and, thus, tuition fees), cool donors, affect lucrative television contracts, and cause political blowback. So victims are blamed — there’s a startling montage of women, scores of them, explaining the insulting questions and accusations lobbed at them by school administrators — and students are discouraged from reporting to police. They’d rather take care of it on campus — which is to say, not at all.
The filmmakers interview a few former academic personnel (retired deans, professors, campus cops), but most are afraid to talk, as professors have been terminated or denied tenure for advocating for victims. (“It made getting the military to talk look easy,” Ziering mused Saturday.) Thankfully, Dick and Zierling don’t have anything to lose; they happily name-and-shame university presidents who took no action against rapists, often waiting to suspend or expel accused athletes until after important games or seasons.
They take similar action against the investigating detective and prosecutor who bungled the case of Erica Kinsmas, the Florida State University student whose rape accusation was ignored for nearly a year, presumably because she was accusing star quarterback Jameis Winston. This section — stunning, powerful, infuriating — is the centerpiece of The Hunting Ground, encapsulating everything that is corrupt and loathsome about this system.
But if the serial rapists of those campuses are one kind of predator, we meet another in Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s Hot Girls Wanted. His name is Riley, a 23-year-old “talent agent” for performers in adult film — performers that barely qualify as “adults” themselves. “Every day a new girl turns 18,” he tells the filmmakers, with a cringe-inducing grin. “And every day, a new girl wants to do porn.”
Riley’s specialty is scouting out new talent for the subgenre of “amateur” porn, which is a deceptive label; these films are professionally cast and produced, but shot in a style to appear homemade and spontaneous. Bauer and Gradus spend a few month hanging out in the Miami house that Riley keeps for his girls, who are mostly new to the industry — and probably won’t be in it long. Once the new wears off and “amateur” producers stop booking them, they either go to California to try and make it there, go back to their “real” lives, or have to take work in more “niche-oriented” films. Most last three months or less.
Bauer and Gradus focus on a handful of girls, who come in excited about the money they’ll make, the freedom they’ll enjoy, and the fun they’ll have. For a while, it’s almost a non-fiction Boogie Nights, chronicling their rise to “fame” (via upticking Twitter followers), but it doesn’t take long for these rookies to become jaded and cynical. “In the amateur porn world,” notes 18-year-old Rachel, “you’re just processed meat.” She’s not exaggerating, particularly when you get a stomach-churning look at what exactly “niche-oriented” means.
In the Q&A following the film’s Sundance screening Sunday morning, director Gradus noted that they’re “not anti-pornography. Jill and I are not trying to say ‘Let’s end porn.’ It’s always been around… We always say this is like the Super Size Me of porn, which is just to make consumers aware of what goes into what they’re watching.” The film, which veers from upsetting to haunting to heartbreaking, does just that; their previous effort Sexy Baby quite literally changed the way I saw media images of young women, and it’ll be difficult to look at any of this stuff the same way either. As Kendall, boyfriend of one of the film’s subjects, notes, “Every time I see a porno now, I’m like, that’s someone’s girlfriend. That’s someone’s daughter.”
Speaking of daughters, your film editor has a very young one, and it’s hard not to come away from these two films with a strong desire to lock her in a tower until her 30th birthday. Another audience member also connected the films in Sunday’s Q&A, to which Bauer responded, “We did actually start this film by going to college campuses and talking to frat boys, to get some background research, and on our sort of checklist of things we wanted to film was this amateur porn world, because all these boys are watching this porn… and it is no mistake that their behavior is aggressive, and that there are all these rapes on college campuses, because this is where it’s starting. This is what they’re watching.”
However, all is not lost in The Hunting Ground. The film’s heroes are Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, a pair of survivors who made it their mission to raise awareness and to get schools to change policy and take responsibility — which they accomplished by beginning a movement of Title IX suits, a tact picked up by activists at schools across the country. Their activism is inspiring, giving this very upsetting film a semi-uplifting ending that doesn’t feel like a stretch. Things can be done. Changes can be made. We just have to bother to make them.
The Hunting Ground and Hot Girls Wanted screen this week at the Sundance Film Festival. The Hunting Ground is set for theatrical release on March 20.