One fifth of all women who attend an American institution of higher learning will be sexually assaulted. An infuriatingly tiny fraction of the men who attack them will face any kind of consequences. In this spiritual sequel to their 2012 film The Invisible War, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering explore how colleges and universities shelter rapists and fail victims of rape. It is saddening and maddening in equal measure. And it’s also strangely rote.
The Hunting Ground broke me, and not in the way you might expect a film about rape to do so. There was once a time where I could forgive any standard-made documentary for its prosaic construction as long as its material was good enough. But now that I’m more engaged with the news, so many of these films reiterate a great deal of what I already know. And not even the emotional content can be enough to redeem them. While many of the stories related by the women (and a few men) in this film are harrowing, sometimes shattering, they aren’t that different from the firsthand accounts run by any given feminist website.
Not that there’s some kind of limit as to how much pop culture should address a particular subject, but there is a numbing effect at work here. One would think that the visceral empathy of cinema could bring something new to the table, but the structure of The Hunting Ground works against that. It wisely uses as a central narrative spine the story of two young women who became grassroots activists after they were raped at college and their attackers were essentially let go by administrative higher-ups. But the information interwoven with their story is delivered via such a perfunctory series of infographics and expert sound bites that it undercuts the very real emotion their struggle has to offer.
The film chases the activist doc obligation to touch on everything, to its detriment — certain issues, such as the statistics on men who are raped on campus, get literally less than a minute of screen time. That’s not covering your bases; it’s just sloppiness. And some of the talking points the movie raises are deeply questionable. It hauls out the “avoid frats with a bad reputation” line of advice, both from its interviewees and in its closing call to action, which is a classic example of placing the burden of preventing rape on potential victims, as opposed to potential rapists.
There is still, of course, great value to be found here. Films can often motivate social action in ways that a hundred Internet thinkpieces or blog posts can’t manage yet. Coming as it does at a time when college rape is an electrified issue, The Hunting Ground could easily spur positive policy shifts. This is one of those situations where stepping in as a movie critic and shrugging “it’s just not artistically engaging” comes close to assholery.
But something about presenting the story this doc chooses — young women who have turned to activism because the system has failed them utterly — as an object of inspiration rankles. Or rather, trying to use such a story to evoke feelgoodness rankles. And the doc ultimately is going for uplift, with triumphant music scoring scenes of protests and graduations. It’s possible that I’m subconsciously put off by these women channeling something terrible that happened to them into something positive, that the societal narrative that rape must leave you a broken victim forever has infected me on a deep level.
But I’m reminded of how Schindler’s List, almost unwittingly, used the Holocaust to try to make audiences feel good, and how badly that sits with me. Perhaps ending on a high note might make viewers more likely to follow the doc’s closing chyrons and post some hashtags. In that case, more power to it. But I’m not sure how much longer I can go on giving passes to documentaries on the weight of their subjects.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2015.