‘The Hunting Ground’: Exposé of campus sexual assaults

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For Digital First Media

The title, “The Hunting Ground,” evokes the image of gun-wielding men traipsing through the forest in pursuit of game. However, the documentary bearing that name actually involves an altogether different subject. It focuses on the sexual predators, who infest U.S. college campuses. The film’s scope includes such prestigious institutions as Harvard Law School, Yale University, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Berkeley, Notre Dame as well as its sister school, Saint Mary’s.

“The Hunting Ground” poses an interesting hypothetical question. It asks what you would do if you were the parent of a prospective college freshman and discovered that your child had a one in five chance of being the victim of a drive-by shooting while matriculating at that school. Would you allow them to attend the college? It provides an interesting frame of reference. “The Hunting Game” cites studies, which found that 16-25 percent of female students experience sexual assault during their college years. Obviously, college administrations are eager to suppress such startling statistics.

“The Hunting Ground” addresses skeptics, who insist that many rape accusations arise from consensual assignations in which a accuser is motivated by post-coital regret or other ulterior motives. However, “The Hunting Ground” cites numerous studies, which find that the rate of false accusations are in the range of 2 to 8 percent.  The film points out that the statistic mirrors the statistics for false reports on other crimes.

“The Hunting Ground” represents another collaboration between director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Ziering. The duo previously worked together on the 2012 documentary, “The Invisible War,” about sexual assaults within the U.S. military. Both their prior film and “The Hunting Ground” recount the surprising prevalence of sexual assault in two different settings. Even more disturbingly, both documentaries depict the frequent failure of officials to conduct investigations and mete out appropriate punishment.

“The Hunting Ground” interviews many victims of campus sexual assault. A clear pattern emerges. The victims detail how the college administrators discouraged them from proceeding further. The film makes the point that administrators have a vested interest in protecting the school’s brand. They are prone to squelch any investigations that might place the school in an unfavorable light.

“The Hunting Ground” delineates the nugatory punishments, which are issued  even in those instances in which a college judicial board finds a student to be guilty of sexual assault. The punitive measures that the film cites are often ludicrously light. These include having the attacker make a poster, pay a $25 fine, or being expelled but only after graduation. This latter solution is frequently applied when the accused party is an athlete. In such instances, administrative action may be expediently deferred until the athlete is no longer eligible to benefit the university.

A significant portion of “the Hunting Ground” is allocated to the emblematic case of Jameis Winston. He was the star quarterback for the Florida State University Seminoles. As a freshman, Winston led his team to victory in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. He became the youngest person ever to win the Heisman Trophy. Winston allegedly raped a co-ed. His accuser, Erica Kinsman, appears in the film to discuss her ordeal publicly for the first time. She convincingly details how the 6’4,” 230 pound Winston drugged, then forcibly raped her.  In the film, Kinsman comes across as an extremely credible source.

“The Hunting Ground” discusses Scott Angulo, the policeman, who was assigned to investigate the rape accusation. He is an alumnus of Florida State University. By itself, that might not necessarily be problematic. However, in addition, the film points out that Angulo moonlighted by providing security for the boosters club, that group is the principal financier of FSU’s athletic program.

“The Hunting Ground” suggests that this created an invidious conflict of interest for Angulo. It turns out that Angulo didn’t bother to collect a DNA sample from Winston, didn’t interview him, and never attempted to obtain a contemporaneous video of the incident taken by one of Jameis’ teammates? Given Angulo’s derogation of duty, Jameis was able to skate away from the charges without even facing prosecution.

In the film, Kinsman discusses how she was subjected to intense harassment and threats. As a consequence, Kinsman left Tallahassee before she could obtain her baccalaureate.

“The Hunting Ground” does not purport to be a balanced treatment of the subject matter. Instead, this film is an example of unabashed advocacy journalism. It openly calls for a radical reform in the way that universities deal with allegations of rape and sexual assault.

“The Hunting Ground” is a sobering exposé about a shameful national epidemic.

***1/2 PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, and for language) 102 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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