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‘The Hunting Ground’ Review

| Monday, April 20, 2015

hunting-ground-graphic-WEBKeri O'Mara | The Observer

In a world filled with injustice and moral negligence, award-winning director Kirby Dick’s documentary “The Hunting Ground” portrays societal activism against sexual assault on elite college campuses. The film makes an immediate call to action by asserting the message of the federal government, which the Notre Dame student government adopted: “It’s On Us” — a national campaign that aims to prevent sexual violence in the collegiate atmosphere. The documentary opens by focusing on arguably the most joyous part of one’s high school career: receiving college admittance. The lightheartedness of this sequence only emphasizes the helplessness conveyed through the rest of the film.

Dick’s utilization of candid interviews and raw emotion resonates with the audience through the entirety of the documentary. Focusing on two University of North Carolina sexual violence activists, “The Hunting Ground” presents victimization in a bright light that universities routinely dim. Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, victims of campus rape themselves, advocate for the prevention and national awareness of many universities’ failure to combat sexual assault or support victims. In their work and in the film, Clark and Pino argue these points reflect a failure to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded collegiate institutions. The Department of Education has launched investigations against dozens of universities that allegedly have failed to uphold Title IX mandates, and Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s feature among other colleges and universities where assault cases were reportedly mishandled.

Though the film speaks out against sexual assault in numerous ways, shapes and forms, its rapid changeovers from one situation to the next overwhelm the audience. While these may be Dick’s exact intent, the severe topics of campus rape and discrimination pack a strong enough punch on a given congregation. That said, we can all appreciate the film’s intense mood on such a prominent subject.

The documentary exposes many elite institutions around the nation, including Harvard, North Carolina, Florida State University and — of course — Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Highlighting the assault of former Saint Mary’s student Lizzy Seeberg in 2010, the film portrays Notre Dame as elitist and dismissive of sexual violence and gender inequality. A controversial subject at the time, the Lizzy Seeberg scandal continues to haunt audiences of “The Hunting Ground,” who witness interviews with Seeberg’s father. Moreover, the film slams Notre Dame because of its athletic administration’s lack of response to sexual assault allegedly committed by student-athletes. Despite the film’s allegations, Notre Dame denies its portrayal of the University. Correspondingly, the film states University President Fr. John Jenkins declined to be interviewed. No matter the circumstances, the institution’s inaction by reluctantly punishing or completely refusing to punish perpetrators has led to comprehensive investigation of the University’s policies.

The arguments made by the film’s many interviewees, the repetition of situations and responses, strengthen the theme of selfishness and disregard for victims on the part of colleges and universities. Emphasized by numerous statistics, the documentary makes its point by conveying disappointing institutional responses. While one in five women has suffered an assault, a mere 22 percent actually report the incident. Of that 22 percent, 95 to 98 percent of those stories are completely accurate. Universities’ responses, according to “The Hunting Ground,” consist of suppressing or completely ignoring the issue, as well as placing blame on the victims. The mass majority of the interviewees in the film convey a common trend of disparaging feedback along the lines of “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking too much?” “Did you misinterpret the friendship?” “Maybe he meant well, and it just shows how much he likes you.” These disgusting responses pique audience involvement by instilling anger and a cry for justice. Furthermore, the film’s portrayal of responses to assaults, specifically among the athletes, incite passion and anger for the subject at hand, and Dick’s portrayal of female activism does not disappoint. Clark and Pino’s determination, in spite of death threats and social media attacks, to seek a legal response from their university, inspires women of all ages to seek equality.

Through personal accounts, blunt accusations and raw emotion, “The Hunting Ground” provides audiences with more than enough incentive to seek social justice and equality. Men and women alike have suffered victimization long enough, and the documentary’s call to action encourages humankind to refuse current university standards and responses. The film serves as a catalyst for societal progression, and college students around the nation should certainly take part in the change.

About Kathy Minko

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