Two recent films address the traumatic experiences of sexual assault survivors.
It is very difficult to talk about sexual assault. It is especially difficult for survivors to come out and tell their stories, considering they are often accused of lying — the blame is consistently placed on victims. Two recent documentaries, The Hunting Ground from 2015, and last year’s Audrie & Daisy, address the complicated issue of sexual assault head-on and allow victims to speak out and talk about their feelings and experiences.
These films are similar in both form and content, considering they both allow young women (and their families) to speak at length in front of the camera about their experiences, and they both utilize animation techniques to advance their facts and points. Most of the survivors are female, which highlights the violent misogyny within North American culture, where men feel entitled to touch women without consent. The subjects frequently cry as they re-live traumatic and painful experiences from their lives — it could be argued that this is exploitative, but it should be remembered how important and powerful it is for survivors to tell their stories.
The Hunting Ground consistently uses statistics to highlight how widespread the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is. Using statistics is common in documentaries, and while sometimes statistical information can be dry, incorrect, or manipulative, in this case it is chilling. The film cites countless studies while using numbers and graphics to outline how many sexual assaults are reported on school grounds, how many go unreported, and how many result in expulsion.
Audrie & Daisy uses animation to obscure the identities of three high-school boys who sexually assaulted Audrie Pott, a young woman who committed suicide in the aftermath of the attack. As part of the punishment for their crime, the boys agreed to speak in front of the camera and to have their interviews included in the film. It is chilling that these young men barely seem to realize they did anything wrong. Throughout the interviews, they seem uncomfortable and embarrassed but claim Audrie consented to sexual activity, despite the fact that she was drunk and passed out. The interviews are effective, as they reveal these boys’ attitudes about consent, women, and their actions, and likely reflect the views of many other young men.
Both films address the connection between school campuses and sexual assault, especially The Hunting Ground, which begins with a montage of happy young students finding out they have been accepted to college. School is supposed to be a place of learning, friendship, and positive life experiences — it is supposed to be a place where parents feel their children will be safe. Audrie & Daisy deals with high-school aged kids and the way rumors spread and lead to severe bullying. Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman both experienced extreme bullying, name-calling, and harassment on social media following their assaults, and both were driven to attempt suicide. The Hunting Ground’s subjects are university students, so slightly older, but they experienced similar harassment on social media from their classmates. Both films point to the way that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can make bullying more immediate and allow rumors and hateful stories to spread very quickly. People who do not know the victims or the perpetrators often take to commenting on the stories on social media.
The films explore in detail how sexual assault survivors are systematically ignored or discredited by law enforcement and school faculty members. Schools — especially universities — rarely take action to expel boys who have been accused of rape, especially if those boys are promising athletes. In The Hunting Ground, Erica Kinsman shares the story of how she was raped, while drunk, by her Florida State classmate Jameis Winston, who was quarterback on the school’s football team. She recounts how painful it was for her to see him continually celebrated, even after the accusations were made public. People accused her of lying and being desperate for attention — an insidious pattern in sexual assault cases in America.
Lady Gaga’s haunting song “‘Til It Happens to You” was written for The Hunting Ground, and it underscores scenes of women coming together and speaking publicly about their experiences. Both films indicate that there is hope for the future: if people speak out about the injustice of sexual assault, others can be educated and informed. Young men can be taught about consent and how to treat women with respect, which Daisy Coleman’s brother practices with the baseball team he coaches. In both films, survivors speak about how talking to other survivors has given them a support system, and made it much easier to cope with the traumatic after affects of rape.
Audrie & Daisy and The Hunting Ground are two mainstream documentaries that bravely address the many injustices related to sexual assault — specifically when the victims are young women (The Hunting Ground does include a few male victims, whose voices also deserve to be heard). This is not an easy topic to cover, but both films use interviews, animation techniques, music, and statistics to convey the complexity of the issue at hand. While these films are not perfect — they could have included more male survivors or addressed how sexuality and race are often factors in survivors’ experiences — they are both incredibly informative, and it is extremely powerful for victims to tell their stories honestly, and in detail.