Landmark Doc 'The Hunting Ground' Hopes To Change The Conversation Around Campus Rape

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have worked together -- he as director and she as producer -- since their 2002 documentary about French philosopher Jacques Derrida. When their breakout 2012 film "The Invisible War" sparked policy change surrounding sexual assault in the military and collected an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, Dick and Ziering decided to shift their lens to college campuses confronting the same issue. In subsequent years, the topic has exploded as a national crisis. The duo captured its developments in real time, and the stirring results premiered to devastated audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The response was so powerful, in fact, that distributor Radius-TWC sped up the release by a month. The movie opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles before expanding to additional cities throughout March and April, eventually airing on CNN. HuffPost Entertainment caught the movie at Sundance, and recently sat down with Dick and Ziering in New York to discuss its challenges.

It's hard to use a word like "fortuitous" when talking about such a heavy topic, but the conversation surrounding campus rape exploded at the exact moment you were making this film. How did you adjust to that?

Dick: We were starting to make the film when it was not being discussed, or it was being discussed very little. We were actually caught off-guard by how much this issue exploded. I mean, it’s fantastic because there’s an incredible interest in the subject matter, but it does make making a film more challenging when the issue is getting debated more and more prominently, and getting debated so hotly. You have to continue to adjust to the cultural discussion. With many documentaries, it’s sort of half. Many things have settled and you’re looking back, but when you’re in the midst of this happening and you’re documenting it, it’s a challenge. You have a range of audiences -- some who know absolutely nothing, and the others who are much more knowledgeable. You have to make a film for both of those audiences.

Because the conversation was evolving as you were filming, what did you decide to omit or emphasize based on what the media had perpetuated?

Ziering: I guess we decided this would be a comprehensive, landmark analysis. People have heard about it, and this can be where they go for a touchstone analysis. I think we were up late because it started to be this sort of backlash or this skepticism about the reality of the proliferation of these crimes that started cropping up. We decided we had to be absolutely even more assertive about where the focus needs to be and stand by the studies and stand by the statistics, and say, “Actually, this is an epidemic and it’s happened at these rates and we all need to really understand it as that and own it as that." Not that we wouldn’t have done that otherwise, but what was going on of late fueled our desire to have that be even more prominent.

Do you mean, for example, the misreported University of Virginia story?

Ziering: Yeah, and for me, that’s bad reporting; it’s not about the issue. So we just had to double down and say that it’s a red herring. Let’s look at where our outrage really should be. If this is really happening at these epidemic levels, why are you worrying about one bad story?

Dick: Yeah, we were making a film about sexual assaults on campuses, not about journalism. I think the other thing is that we were concerned, I suppose, that this whole shifting of the discussion away from the real issue -- that this is a systemic problem at all campuses -- was going to make the way this film landed in culture a little more problematic, but I think actually the opposite happened. So much of this country realized the discussion was being improperly shifted. There was a real gratitude that this film has come in and, in a really comprehensive way, laid out the case as to what really is happening.

Sexual assault happens to men as well, and that's shown briefly in the movie. How important was it to explore that side?

Dick: Well, it absolutely was important. If it’s difficult for a woman to report a sexual assault on campus or anywhere, it’s so much more difficult for a man to report one. We definitely wanted that in. We didn’t feel like we could allot as much time to male sexual assault as we did in “The Invisible War” because in the military more men than women are sexually assaulted because of the high number of men proportionally. Whereas here I think the number is closer to 6 percent of men are sexually assaulted, mostly by other men, but some by women. We definitely wanted to include it, but because of the ratio of there being so many more women being assaulted, we really wanted to keep the focus on women.

President Obama has spoken out about this issue. What should be the next administration be doing?

Ziering: More speaking out. More cultural awareness, more presidential announcements, more appearances on the Grammys. I’m not joking. Let’s change the zeitgeist on this. Let’s stop the victim-blaming. Let’s stop the stigmatization of this issue. That would be huge. For me, my personal hope, what I would see as a good fix, is pushing for independent investigators on these campuses. That way it’s a cleaner system. Whatever the outcomes are, at least people feel they’re getting a fair shake. I know that helps people go through this trauma much more quickly. It’s not as compounding of the trauma, at least, if you feel like you have access to some kind of fair system. If that’s not in place, it’s not a good thing.

Dick: Institutions are acting out of pressure right now -- all institutions do. But it would be wonderful to see institutions go way beyond that. I’d like to see a college president apologize to the generations of women and men who’ve been assaulted and were not properly treated. There’s a long way to go so that survivors of sexual assault are treated the same way that victims of any other crime might be. We’ve got a long way to go to get there.

Once you get to know the survivors and are enmeshed in the issue, is it hard to wrap the doc and have to, more or less, wash your hands of it?

Ziering: It’s very hard. In fact, after “Invisible War,” I was haunted. I was like, “Okay, we made a movie, but Trina’s life still totally sucks. Great, whoopee.” I really felt actively horrible. So, to make a long story super short, I ended up connecting with one of our executive producers on “Invisible War,” and said, “What do you think? What can we do for these women?” We decided to help them go through a recovery program, so that was my way of working through my connection and compassion and sadness and not being able to walk away from the story. That was fairly successful. Many of the women who were in our film got to go through that, and I thought we were giving them something back. I think with this film, we’re exploring that. [Producer Regina K. Scully] actually was at Sundance and she ended up meeting with a lot of survivors and offering them that, which I think is really beautiful and extraordinary. I think we’re working on figuring that piece out, but you’re right. It is a very different and unique relationship. You don’t ever really disengage. Just as a sidebar, I remember talking to Ted Conover, who, when he does his reporting, becomes someone else. He goes and lives in Rikers Island or some prison for two years. I said, “Are you going to do something next?” He said, “You know, you don’t come out the same person.” It’s really hard and I think, in some ways, it’s true -- after each of our films, you don’t come out the same person. It’s not something you just take on or off.

Given the gravity, there's a refreshing amount of humor in "The Hunting Ground." You use such bright graphics and there's even some ironic comic relief in displaying the ridiculous sanctions various perpetrators have received from universities.

Dick: Obviously you always look for humor because it’s a different way of conveying a truth, actually. It’s a challenge when you’re dealing with sexual assault.

Ziering: It’s also a release, right?

Dick: It’s a release, yeah. We want you to kind of relax and then come back to the serious subject. It shifts your perspective for a moment. Bill White, who did the graphics, has done the graphics for our last four films. He’s just brilliant. The bright colors are based on the idea of school colors. Again, this goes back to this idea of loyalty to the school and edification of the school. And then, of course, the absurdity of how these institutions respond give you a good number of opportunities for humor. The sanctions, some of thems were just absurd.

Ziering: You couldn’t invent this stuff. If we had written that, people would say, “Oh, that’s so far-fetched, you can’t believe that.” If you were writing a comedy sketch, you couldn’t have come up with that.

You cite every statistic and if anything is even slightly wrong, it throws everything off. The re-research process during postproduction must have been exhausting.

Dick: It was. We were making a film about so many different institutions, so many different stories. There are so many facets of this. It was an incredible undertaking, in terms of production. But also to make sure that everything was buttoned down, because, again, you’re dealing with institutions that will do everything they can to cover it up. Good luck calling up these institutions and saying, “Can you give me the number of sexual assaults and the number of expulsions?” They won’t even respond to you. This is how much they still cover it up: When they get called by someone -- and they know the film is coming out -- they say, “Absolutely not, we will not give you that information.” You would think that is information that everybody should know. Imagine if you called up the city of New York and said, “How many people have been charged and how many people have been convicted by the state?” and they said, “No, we’re not giving you that information”? It’s absurd. And a lot of these are state institutions, too. So it makes it even harder.

What do you hope will result after the movie opens?

Ziering: Ideally, we’d love to see something happen that’s somewhat similar to “The Invisible War,” where the military actually saw that -- and Kirby did it as a critique, not an attack -- and started using it as a training tool, and reformed policy. Having achieved that with one film, we aspire to that with this one. Obviously a transformation of public understanding of this issue and also a transformation of policy responses. Done.

Watch the "Hunting Ground" trailer:



Sundance 2015