PARK CITY, Utah – “The Hunting Ground,” set for release in theaters and broadcast on CNN, was billed by the Sundance Film Festival as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses.” Judging by viewer reaction at the film’s premiere and the comments of two U.S. senators afterward, festival programmers might have undersold it.
Although the subject has been explored in depth by some publications, the response testified to the power of film. At the premiere here Friday, audience members repeatedly gasped as student after student spoke on camera about being sexually assaulted – and being subsequently ignored or run through endless hoops by college administrators concerned about keeping rape statistics low.
“The power on that status quo side, you’re going to see it in response to this film,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at a related panel discussion Saturday. She added, “Believe me, there will be fallout.”
Along with institutions like Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “The Hunting Ground” takes on the fraternity system – in particular, Sigma Alpha Epsilon – and even throws down a challenge of a sort for the NFL with a not-so-subtle suggestion that teams should think twice about drafting one of the top college prospects, Jameis Winston.
Winston, the Florida State University quarterback, is the focus of one of the film’s more incendiary segments. The Heisman Trophy winner in 2013, he was accused in 2012 of sexual assault by a female student. He has asserted his innocence, did not face criminal charges and was recently cleared of violating Florida State’s student code of conduct by the university. He is widely expected to be among the first several players chosen in this spring’s NFL draft. But “The Hunting Ground,” directed by Kirby Dick, makes a mockery of Florida State’s investigation, and Winston’s accuser, Erica Kinsman, speaks publicly about the case for the first time in the film, at length.
Boxer was joined on the panel here on Saturday by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Both are backing legislation intended to curb the startling number of sexual assaults on college campuses. The measure would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assaults, and would impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law’s requirements.
In the near term, severe public shaming will arrive via Dick’s film, which mentions dozens of schools by name and focuses on six. “The Hunting Ground” will be released in theaters on March 20 by Radius-TWC, a division of the Weinstein Co., which is known for stirring controversy to support film releases. “The Hunting Ground” poster resembles an ad for a horror movie.
CNN could provide a global megaphone. That is what the network did with its airing of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that debuted at Sundance and was harshly critical of SeaWorld and its captive orca program. The wide audience prompted consumer outrage that has been tied to decreases in SeaWorld attendance.
“We’re not afraid,” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, said after the panel, when asked about a potentially forceful response from higher education officials to “The Hunting Ground.” “They’re on the wrong side.” CNN has not revealed an air date except to say that it will run the film by the end of the year.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to a query on Sunday.
Dick and his producing partner, Amy Ziering, are known for their documentary “The Invisible War,” which put a spotlight on rape in the U.S. military and was nominated for best documentary at the 2013 Academy Awards.
The Department of Education, according to Dick’s film, is investigating 90 colleges for their handling of sexual assault complaints. Boxer, citing urgency created by “The Hunting Ground,” vowed to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “immediately, next week” during her panel remarks. She said she planned to say, “You guys, get out ahead of this, because this is going to come back to your door after everyone sees this film.”
Underscoring the degree to which media scrutiny of campus rape can provoke swift and severe pushback, Rolling Stone in November was forced to step away from a provocative article focused on accusations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine acknowledged that it had erred in relying solely on the word of the accuser and did not try to contact the men she accused.
No senior university officials appear on camera in “The Hunting Ground,” but Dick said Saturday that they had been given the opportunity.
“All of them passed or did not respond at all,” Dick said of the presidents of the six schools at the center of the documentary. He said his team contacted another 35 schools. “No response or they passed on the interview,” he said.