Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Hunting Ground

Kirby Dick, the documentarian whose four-star, Oscar-nominated "The Invisible War" (2012) chronicled sexual assaults in the military, returns with "The Hunting Ground," an equally vital exposé of rapes on U.S. college campuses.

The film effectively weaves the heartbreaking personal stories of victims and their loved ones with jaw-dropping statistics evidencing the blind eye college administrators and even campus police have turned to the problem, especially when star athletes or fraternities are involved. (Major basketball and football programs are cash cows, while fraternities represent up to 60% of annual alumni giving.)

Studies show that the incidence of false reporting for sexual assaults is neither higher nor lower than for other crimes: approximately 8%. So while, as a civil libertarian, I value the rights of the accused above all, it's difficult to fathom the barely perceptible reporting rates and infinitesimal expulsion rates at even large universities. (45% of colleges officially reported zero sexual assaults last year, while expulsion rates hover between 0 and 1 percent.) Reported penalties include a $25 fine, a one-day suspension, an essay ("what I learned from the experience") and, as Jon Stewart incredulously reported, one instance of "expulsion upon graduation." ("Isn't that just called graduation?")

Victims describe a lack of guidance as to how to report sexual assaults and resistance when they do. In story after story, deans and counselors blame, second-guess and intimidate victims; campus police delay or actively impede investigations (at one major school, they are officially prohibited from contacting athletes or assisting others in doing so); fellow students and alumni trash the victims on social media (especially when a star athlete is involved). By relating their personal stories, the victims help us to understand the effects of sexual assault and why their subsequent behavior may not comport (or seem to comport) with our expectations.

We are left with the impression that the people most to blame for the epidemic of campus rapes are college administrators, too afraid of incurring the wrath of athletic programs or fraternities (just as most cases are the work of serial offenders, most fraternity cases involve the same notorious frat houses) to take reports of sexual assault seriously. Because nobody wants to be known as the school with the rape problem, almost every school has a rape problem. A psychologist who specializes in the field opines that it would take just one brave university president to investigate properly and report accurately to effect nationwide change.

"The Hunting Ground" ends on a hopeful note, with the women who took matters into their own hands when their schools let them down, filing a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, which is now investigating over 60 colleges for potential violations. It is not as tightly constructed as "The Invisible War"; there are occasional moments of diffusion or redundancy. And I wish Kirby Dick had gotten into the details of rape investigations and official tribunals, and the seeming difficulty of proving a he-said-she-said crime. Still, with these two films, he announces his presence as, along with Alex Gibney, one of our most important and eye-opening (and empathetic)

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