For most young people, going off to college is a time for celebration and excitement, part of The American Dream.
But there’s a dark side to college life. Statistics show that one in five women will experience a sexual assault during her time in college. It’s a controversial topic explored in great detail in “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. They’re the team behind “The Invisible War,” a documentary about sexual assault in the military.
Some critics have said that “The Hunting Ground” includes some faulty reporting. The online magazine Slate published a story about a purported assailant whose alleged assault is one of four key stories in the film. The accused man was in fact acquitted of all felony charges, though found guilty of a misdemeanor for nonsexual touching. In an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter, director Kirby Dick maintains the film is “completely accurate.”
Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering stopped by The Frame to talk about the making of their documentary, sexual assault on college campuses, and how they gained the trust of their subjects.
How did you manage to get these young women to open up about their alleged sexual assaults?
Amy Ziering: For each person it was very different. For the most part, people were very eager to talk in a way we haven’t seen before. I think in part that was because of the student movement, which has given ground for people to feel more comfortable speaking out. I also think it was in part due to our former film, “Invisible War,” which kind of opened the door and made it safe for people to feel that coming forward might be a positive and validating experience. Before our film, in our society there was much more fear about blowback and retribution if you talked about a sexual assault in public.
There are two things going on there. One is that they’re giving their names and faces to their stories. But also, they have been silenced. And that’s part of the story as well. By speaking out, they’re trying to change the cycle of how they’re dealt with, especially on college campuses.
Kirby Dick: That’s absolutely true, and it’s not just them. Everybody who participated in our film said, I’m doing this because I don’t want this to happen to someone else. They really wanted to change the issue. And there’s no question that what they’ve done, what students and activists have done, has really changed the debate around this thing. I think our country owes them a great deal of thanks.
When you started on this film, you probably knew broadly what the statistics were. But as journalists who start the actual reporting, what shocked your conscience about what you learned when working on this film? Amy?
Ziering: I was shocked that it was so … retro? What’s the word? I felt like I was back in the 1950s on these campuses. That was completely surprising to me — the attitude of these administrators, the victim-blaming that was uniform across the boards. The sexism and misogyny that was internalized in the culture on the campuses was really strange and mind-blowing to me. It seems that our certain gender norms are much more reified in a way that I didn’t experience in the '70s or '80s. That, for me, was one of the more shocking things.
Dick: And I think also how ubiquitous it was. We were following dozens of stories on dozens of campuses around the country. This was my most ambitious undertaking for a film. It seemed like no school really handled it completely right. And you know, these are incredible women. Their credibility is so high. You just couldn’t understand why schools were reacting to their students this way.
As documentary filmmakers, you’re obviously interested in incredible stories. The more incredible, the more compelling the story. But as humans who are listening to this story, you’ve got to be really anguished by what you’re hearing. So how do you separate what you’re hearing as a filmmaker from what you’re hearing as a human being, and how heartbreaking it is?
Dick: Yeah, well, when you’re hearing these people tell these stories, it causes you to be extremely sad . . . At the same time, we know that if this is affecting us, it will affect audiences. And that kind of impact will help change this, and help put an end to these assaults. And also, if it’s affecting us in this way, it will affect audiences very strongly. So you’re listening to it from the point of view as a person, but also as a filmmaker — simultaneously.
That’s got to be incredibly difficult. Amy, are you listening to it as two different people?
Ziering: Yeah. You are, in a certain way. I think I’m a little less so than Kirby. We do the interviews together. I’m the initial interviewer and then Kirby [follows], for the most part. That takes a bit of the burden off of me, where I don’t have to play the filmmaker role. I absolutely absorb myself in the moment. I’m really there to hear their story as an empathetic listener. It’s hard work but I like to point out: if it’s so hard for us, we can only begin to imagine what the impact is not only on people who experience these crimes, but their loved ones, and everyone they’re in contact with. There’s a ripple domino effect of toxicity. That’s my takeaway from it. That’s where we really take this issue on in a way we haven’t in this culture.
Amy, you’re not just a filmmaker or journalist. You’re the mother of daughters. What is it like when you hear these stories and start imagining the safety of your own children?
Ziering: It’s horrible . . . One question I often ask in interviews is, How did you tell your parents? And if anyone responded that they hadn’t yet, or weren’t going to, it really would break my heart. We have a whole montage of those responses. Those really crushed me . . . And it’s hard for my kids, too. I don’t envy them for having grown up with a mom who’s made two films back-to-back about sexual assault. That’s not exactly fun dinner conversation.
What was the most difficult thing about getting this film made?
Ziering: One of the most difficult things was getting high-level administrators to talk on camera. It was more difficult to do that than it was to get Pentagon officials to talk to us in “Invisible War.”
Dick: Absolutely. And also, we were covering these stories in real time. This is not a documentary looking at something that’s happened in the past. You don’t really have control over this. We were following dozens of stories of sexual assault, and how these survivors responded, and that’s a very delicate thing. We got it right at the beginning. A couple of months after our main subjects started coming out and talking publicly — and these were the subjects who were at the lead of the student movement. We followed it all the way through over the next two years until they were in the White House, helping Senator Gillibrand draft bills. Helping Governor Cuomo of New York draft bills. Everything changed, and we were there following it the entire time.
You have a website that you link to called seeactstop.org at the end of the film. In terms of how you want this film to change things, what would you say your top two or three priorities are?
Dick: First, awareness. Sexual assault, in all societies, is something that’s denied and continually silenced. We want this put in front of people, administrators, faculty, students, alumni, so that this is something they can’t deny. And hopefully, with this awareness they’ll compel these institutions to change. And to the institutions’ credit, there is some movement. That would be one thing.
Ziering: If the film could have our whole culture re-conceive and reframe sexual assaults, that would be a huge win for me. What I mean by that is, all studies show that 92-98 percent of when someone reports a rape, that report is accurate. They’re telling the truth. And yet it’s the only crime in our society where, when it’s reported, it’s met with skepticism. You get challenging questions . . . These are crimes like any other, and we should treat them as such. The second thing would be to believe survivors as a result — that fact that they’re as likely to be credible in what they’re saying as anyone else who’s telling you of a crime being committed. And if we start there with square one, there’d be a transformative ripple effect that would be huge and necessary.
"The Hunting Ground" airs on CNN on Sunday, Nov. 22.