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‘The Hunting Ground’ producer discusses work, problem of sexual assault

| Wednesday, April 5, 2017

After creating films that have helped inform changes to university administrative processes, new government legislation and multiple congressional hearings, documentarian Amy Ziering was chosen to be the keynote speaker for the Student Union Board’s (SUB) Literary Festival on Tuesday night.

Ziering — who recently produced “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary that examines sexual assault on college campuses and the institutional responses to these incidents — said she tries to create films that will affect change in society.

“What I really do like to do is I like to ask questions, and I like to hear other people’s stories and I like to put them on screen,” she said. “ … Really, my work is all about, sort of, the importance of [being] rigorous and the importance of storytelling.”

Ziering said her road to becoming a documentarian stemmed from an interest in academia. Her first film was a documentary about French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose “thinking about dismantling unquestioned social norms was extremely formative” for Ziering, she said. It took about a year of Ziering pursuing him for Derrida to agree to be the subject of the film, Ziering said, and he remained a reluctant subject throughout the filmmaking process.

“What I realized, and began to appreciate, is that he wasn’t being difficult,” she said. “He was being pedagogical. Not because he didn’t see the value in storytelling — and this is important — but because, for him, storytelling is something to be taken very, very seriously. It’s important and difficult. Words and what you say matter, and you have to take care — there’s a profound responsibility involved.”

This responsibility stayed with Ziering as she embarked upon her career as a filmmaker. In 2006, Ziering said, she came across an article by author and journalist Helen Benedict, which alerted Ziering to the “epidemic” of rape in the U.S. military.

“What was so problematic was not just the crimes themselves, but the fact that these victims had no access to any kind of impartial system of justice,” she said. “ … I asked her if her article had been picked up and gone wider and she said, much to her surprise, it had not. No one, she said, wanted to hear about it, no one was very interested.”

After discovering that, according to the Department of Defense, “every day in our military, 49 men and women are sexually assaulted,” Ziering said she spent about a year trying to secure funding for a film exploring this subject before she and co-director Kirby Dick decided to produce the film on their own.

“We had no money to make this film, and just walking around and talking to these people, it was the obligation, it was that responsibility,” she said. “I heard their stories and I was like, I’m all in. I don’t care, we’re going to make this somehow, someway, and I just felt responsible to make that film, even though everyone said I was so crazy.”

Ziering and Dick premiered their film, “The Invisible War,” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations and an outpouring of support.

“It broke the story of the epidemic of rape in our military, and unleashed a tsunami of outrage,” Ziering said. “I have a lot of incredible stories I could tell you about what happened in its wake … I knew we had an opportunity here, a possibility.”

Part of the aftermath of the film included the introduction of over 35 new pieces of legislation, as well as over 500,000 soldiers viewing the film as part of military training. Ziering said none of this would have been possible without the support of the military.

“We made a conscious decision — a creative decision, one could say — that the film would be pro-military,” she said. “We wouldn’t make a film that was anti-military because we realized strategically that regardless of what we might think of certain things that our military was doing at the time, it needed to appeal to and be received by everybody … the military really did watch that film, and as I said, it’s because they felt it wasn’t an attack.”

The same campaign that contributed to various instances of political reform also led to the production of “The Hunting Ground,” Ziering said.

“Part of what led to all of these policy changes was we did this outreach campaign, and we simply showed the film on campuses,” she said. “And the strange thing that happened was every time we showed it on a campus, a survivor of campus assault would come up to us and say, ‘You know, this happened to me here.’”

Once people started coming forward with their stories of surviving campus assault, Ziering and Dick felt an “obligation” to shine a light on the problem of campus sexual assault, she said.

“It’s very hard to make these kind of films,” Ziering said. “It’s hard technically, obviously, but it’s hard emotionally. You don’t really end up coming out the same. I had developed secondary PTSD, which I — who knew? But again, we just felt like someone’s got to do this [and] we’re in a good position to do it.”

The impact of the film made the arduous filmmaking process worth it, Ziering said.

“What’s so interesting and instructive about the importance of storytelling — or this echo effect — is how everybody sort of gets empowered by when you do share and open up, if you feel comfortable doing so, and what a powerful impact it has,” she said.

In an interview with The Observer, Ziering said the response from campuses across the country to screenings of “The Hunting Ground” has been “extraordinary,” and urged students to engage in honest conversations about sexual violence.

“I’d love for Notre Dame students to watch the film ‘The Hunting Ground’ and talk about it,” Ziering said. “ … The truth is, most men are not rapists. It’s a small percentage of men that commit these crimes, but our rape culture protects them. And it’s time for us to stop protecting perpetrators and start protecting victims and survivors.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, who recently wrapped up her year as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

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