“She said, ‘I just want to make sure you don’t talk to anyone about this.’”

The Hunting Ground

B+
Michigan Theater
RADiUS-TWC

As “The Hunting Ground” demonstrates in its opening scenes, a college campus can be a beautiful place. There’s nothing quite like the joy of getting that initial e-mail that you’ve been accepted to your dream school. Once you arrive, there’s a general hustle and bustle that gives the attractive illusion of safety, of campus spirit and local culture intermingling. Everything is happy and the world is your oyster.

Cut to the title card: “The Hunting Ground.” From that point forward, director Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War”) doesn’t waste any time on appearances. Pretty shots of springtime campuses are edited to be juxtaposed alongside the chilling testimonies of sexual assault victims on campuses all across the United States. That juxtaposition is a little on-the-nose, as is Lady Gaga’s featured song “Till It Happens to You,” a song she wrote about sexual assault specifically for the film. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to use the soundtrack that way, and to start with that falsely cheery vision of college. It doesn’t really matter, though. This is all real. This needs to be seen.

As young women share their experiences, the camera racks focus on imaginary party scenes, coating the scene in lens flare and blurriness to suggest how little control the survivors had. In its best moments, “The Hunting Ground” attempts to remedy that helplessness and give agency to the survivors of sexual assault. The documentary focuses most often on Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark, two survivors who banded together at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sought to fix widespread ignorance about rape on college campuses. It’s deeply affecting to watch Pino and Clark working together and reaching out to survivors at other universities, whether it’s nervous Skype calls or emotional meetings in person.

Woven in among the personal testimonies are statistics and interviews with professionals, to varying degrees of success. Some moments are very effective, like a stylish, darkly funny montage of empty promises from college officials saying they take reports of sexual assault “very seriously.” Other times, the numbers tend to dull down the impact of the subject. They’re important to hear, but hearing so many percentages depersonalizes sexual assault, reducing its ubiquity to a statistic instead of a tragedy (as the famous saying goes). It’s also a little unnecessary to spend so much time with psychologists, journalists and campus officials who lend their opinions on the matter. Some of their interviews provide insight into the issue, especially when they explain universities’ financial incentives to withhold reports of sexual assault, but like the statistics, they create a certain distance from the heart of the issue. There’s also the simple fact that testimonials from campus administrators are inherently less interesting on an entertainment level than interviews with the survivors themselves.

“The Hunting Ground” usually goes for breadth instead of depth, touching on many facets of sexual assault while leaving many of them underdeveloped. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, “The Hunting Ground” gives viewers valuable knowledge about a variety of issues and points of view related to assault, becoming the definitive documentary about campus rape. On the other hand, some parts are interesting but don’t go anywhere. Around 20 minutes focus on Greek life, particularly Sigma Alpha Epsilon, nicknamed “Sexual Assault Expected.” Some time is spent on Erica Kinsman, the alleged victim of FSU quarterback Jameis Winston. One scene features a male student confessing how his claim is taken less seriously due to his gender. These are all intriguing threads that warrant entire documentaries of their own, but some of them are barely touched on.

At one point, Notre Dame student Molly, near tears, recounts the experience of telling her parents about her assault. Her father, a Notre Dame alum, constantly wears his class ring, but when Molly tells him about her assault, he never wears it again. It’s the kind of personal detail that transcends statistics and calculated psychological diagnoses. It’s poignant stories like this that make the film so important.

Despite some technical issues with structure and allocation of time, “The Hunting Ground” is an example of a movie in which content is more important than form. It demands viewing simply because of how essential the subject is, and how desperately sexual assault survivors need someone out there to show them they’re not alone. The documentary is a visceral, important piece of cinema that pleads with its audience not to forget its messages. Most viewers won’t.

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