The Hunting Ground Review

One of the better horror films to come out this year is Kirby Dick’s documentary The Hunting Ground. Whilst the majority of the film is not played for horror, there is simply no denying the fact that this is a real life horror film through and through. On par with Errol Morris’ essential documentary, The Fog of War, The Hunting Ground is a damning expose of the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses in America.

The reason I say that this is on par with The Fog of War is that just like that terrifying film, Dick’s documentary uses powerful statistics and victims testimonies to tell this haunting story. The main narrative has Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark – both survivors of sexual assault on college campuses – rallying to help other survivors as well as try and bring the whole college system to justice. Just like Dick’s equally essential documentary, The Invisible War, there has been a lot of anger and questions of inaccuracy leveled at The Hunting Ground.

I won’t talk about that just yet, as part of that anger and frustration at the film is referenced within the film itself. Part of what makes The Hunting Ground so compelling is that it lays clear a multitude of problems that are not just related to sexual assault. For starters, given the fact that US colleges – unlike the universities of Australia – are businesses first and foremost, and educational institutions second, they want to protect their investments and capital more than anything else. So when a girl raises that pesky issue of the fact that she was raped by a star athlete, well, naturally the problem is dealt with in a tactful and timely manner. (Spoiler Alert: it isn’t.)

One of the aspects of the American college system that perpetually confuses my small Australian mind is the link of high paid athletes with the education system. For some reason, you can go to college to get an… education in American football? I’m not entirely sure how this works, and it’s not this films job to explain it either. However, it does make the whole big business sport mixed with big business education give off the feeling of mixing church and state. It doesn’t feel right.

It feels even worse when you see consistent statistics of girls – and guys as well – reporting sexual assault at colleges. It’s terrifying to see how heavily the cards are stacked against females in this world. It’s even more terrifying that when a film like this arrives you have multitudes of people crying wolf over some of the statistics in the film.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the injustices (besides, y’know, sexual assault) that are brought against females in America. The amount of money thrown behind American Football is insane, yet there is no equal amount thrown behind a female league, or even thrown behind something other than sport that is female-centric. Because of this supremely sport based culture, any ‘star athlete’ seen to have done something wrong will most likely be ‘expelled’ at the end of his college years, not during it (in other words – he graduates).

Fraternities (for some reason) are allowed to have alcohol fuelled parties, however, sororities are not – this fact alone helps create the hunting grounds of the title.  By having these huge events be run by males makes them ideal places for some of these men to sexually assault women. The language used by some students is just frightening as scenes of men shouting at houses ‘no means yes, yes means anal’ and scenes discussing high potency alcohol which is designed to get women drunk quicker.

Now, it’s worthwhile noting here, as the film does on occasion, that not all men are rapists. This film isn’t designed to attack every single man in some kind of ‘crazed feminist agenda’ (as the internet trolls will tell you). As the last moments of the film show, this is a film about educating both male and female students about the possible dangers on campus and raising awareness of this issue. It is about trying to provide better protection for students, as well as to provide a better support network for the victims of sexual assault.

I say that simply because for some of the statistics and facts, the filmmakers and the victims in the film, have found themselves in hot water. Legal threats and constant online abuse have both caused further anger and heated discussions about sexual assault. The (again) terrifying reaction from people both within the film and because of the film about what victims ‘do’ to these football-centric colleges is… yes… again… terrifying. Now, I fully understand supporting your local football team and getting excited about their success, and I can fully understand the hard core ‘community’ aspect of college football as well and what it represents. Yet, the animosity towards victims of sexual assault brings a (here’s that word again) terrifying idea of ‘oh, just take one for the team’ to the table.

Of course, the Internet being the place of love and fairness, peoples animosity towards those involved with the film is worthwhile pointing out as when Morgan Spurlock created his Oscar nominated film Super Size Me, he didn’t receive the same level of anger as Kirby Dick. Why compare a film about obesity to a film about sexual assault? Because both issues are as important as each other and in need of discussion. Yet, when Spurlock creates a factually incorrect film he gets awards, and when Dick creates a factually accurate film, he gets lawsuits.

Some of the music choices are a bit odd – a song performed by Lady Gaga for example comes off as unnecessarily saccharine and out of place, yet, if that song alone helps bring this subject to more people then its purpose is served. I’m nitpicking though as what is here is a solid documentary that remains as simply terrifying expose of the US college system and one of the major issues related to it. The way facts are revealed over its course is great as it allows each point to set in and the weight of it be fully understood before the next fact.

Unlike The Invisible War however is the fact that The Hunting Ground does have a feeling of being more of an educational tool than caring to be an intriguing documentary. This is not really that big an issue when the core issue presented here in the film is so important and necessary to discuss. I do hope one day I’ll be able to look back at this film and say, well, I’m glad that era is over.

Director: Kirby Dick

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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