Documentarian Kirby Dick first landed on my radar with his expose of the MMPA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, followed by his Oscar-nominated investigation of military rape, The Invisible War. He is a director who likes to stay invisible in his work, yet has a profoundly visible point-of-view on each of his subjects. This means that if you're interested in objective reporting on the subject of a given film of his, you will be out of luck. However, as was the case for his previous works, the approach is well suited to his newest project, The Hunting Ground, a timely dig into the long-running issue of sexual assault on American college campuses.
Dick's approach is straight-forward: interviews and the occasional infographic. This means that, on a formal level, it's not terribly engaging, and the intentionally repetitive structure can contribute to the sense that Dick is circling the drain without quite coming to his point. Yet his stripped-down aesthetic enables him to get out of the way of his subjects, who are the unjustly wronged and maligned victims of sexual assault, nearly all of whom are women. These people - or their loved ones, in the case of a girl who committed suicide after her rape - tell their stories frankly, and you can see on each of their faces the devastating impact that their experiences have had on them. Due to the narrow breadth of the investigation - Dick never strays beyond the college campus - their stories tend to sound similar, and can even blur together once you've heard enough of them. But there is no denying their disturbing power, as well as their unsettling prevalence. One of the many statistics Dick lobs at the audience include the fact that 16 to 20 percent of women will be sexually assaulted by graduation time.
The smartest move Dick makes is to follow the progression of two UNC students as they fight to spread awareness about campus sexual assault, and to connect and console the young men and women whom it afflicts. They operate more or less on their own until they find that other young women who have had similar experiences - both of the activists, Andrea Pino and Amy Clark, were raped in their freshman years. Their drive to prevent further crises, as well as to help in the recovery process, is utterly inspiring, and Dick presents their story clearly and with judicious timing throughout the course of the film. It is a weighty centerpiece to a heavy film, and provides a glimmer of hope amidst the otherwise ravaged young lives on display.
As is the case with any documentary, there are problems with what information was left out in the discussion. For example, every single perpetrator of sexual assault in the film is male, when real people's experiences show that both men and women commit these crimes, albeit with women on a far less frequent basis. And although the information presented by the film is certainly shocking, a moment's thought renders it almost obvious; who in their right mind ever had any doubts that sexual assault was rampant on college campuses? This fact makes it even more clear that Dick avoided a compelling route of investigation by ignoring sexual crimes committed by women. In a similar line of thought, male victims are almost completely left out of the discussion, with only two or three men being interviewed for the film, none of whose stories are probed with any sort of depth. Men have a cripplingly low, almost negligible rate of reporting, yet the few who do speak are glossed over for further stories by women. Dick could have leveled the playing field - and seemed less one-sided - had he pushed further down this line of thought.
If we faulted every documentary for being less well made on a technical level than it is compelling on a content level, we'd never watch anything. The democratization of filmmaking has its roots in cinema verite and the widespread availability of cheap cameras and equipment. That's why The Hunting Ground gets a pass, like any other low-budget documentary. In this case, the medium is not the message; the message is the message. And when the message is this distressing and in need of discussion, that can overcome a lot of shortcomings.
A random thought:
- Almost every single shot of women walking around college campuses features them in tiny dresses or short shorts. Is this intentional on the part of Dick to tempt us into joining in on the victim-blaming that happens to so many sexual assault victims?