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Critics of The Hunting Ground just show why it needed to be made


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There is a problem with rape on American campuses, and a narrative that doesn’t always include the voice of the victims.

Documentary The Hunting Ground aims to help redress the balance, to start a proper debate and inspire victims to come forward. Writer and director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering highlight the issue of institutional cover ups of the crimes, as well as insufficient investigations and support for victims.

The Hunting Ground is extremely powerful in the way that it portrays the trauma of sexual assaults and rape, and the ongoing distress victims are caused well after the act itself.

But as with any stark examination of sexual assault, the movie has come under fire from quarters who don’t believe (or want to believe) the claims it makes.

The shocking statistics raised have been one main focus of criticism. For example, several surveys presented in the film found that 16% to 20% of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted in college, and 88% of women raped on campus do not report it. This reluctance to report incidents is due to many reasons such as shame, fear, and trauma from the event.

However, the Independent Women's Forum in Washington D.C. questioned the validity of the statistic that claims one in five women is a victim of sexual assault at university.

At a conference last year Christina Hoff Sommers stated "I do not believe that the one in five statistic is trustworthy", highlighting that this can "breed panic and overreaction". As well as this, in a Time article, Sommers states "Sexual assault on campus is a genuine problem—but the new rape culture crusade is turning ugly".

But with so few people coming forward, this criticism feeds in to the current status quo and ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach to dealing with sexual assault and rape. The fact is true figures are difficult to calculate, not because it isn’t happening but more because of the stigma attached to coming forward and the refusal of institutions (and society) to take claims seriously.

The sheer number of people who retell their experiences for this film is shocking, and it is easy forget that each of these victims have their own personal struggle to fight. In this way it is important to remember that these are real people and not just faces to make up numbers.

The number of women whose pleas for help that were insufficiently handled is shocking.

Another criticism is the supposed ‘one-sided’ nature of the piece, and the credibility of accounts included.

Few ‘accused’ people are given screen time, and many of the key institutions at the heart of the problem have little say, which does, obviously skew the discussion somewhat.

But rather than illustrating total bias from the filmmakers, it again illustrates the nature of non-discussion.

Take as an example the explanation from Director Kirby Dick about one university.

President of Florida State University John Thrasher claimed that the film is "seriously lacking in credibility", referring to the high profile case of Jameis Winston and Erica Kinsman.

However Dick claimed that the university waited until just three days before the film opened to issue a response. He even kept the film open until 19th February, hoping that President Thrasher along with others would actually come forward.

He also highlighted that the cases were thoroughly researched, and several people were contacted including Jameis Winston's attorney and the Tallahassee Police Department. The key people in this case refused to be interviewed, nor did they respond to multiple inquiries by the filmmakers. Dick stated "Rather than attack the messenger, President Thrasher should show leadership and focus on the problem that has existed on his campus for decades.”

Not only did Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering make efforts to contact key people in these cases, but they also spent two years researching, gathering stories and speaking with experts.

Dick, along with the film's producers, spoke with more than 500 sources and also interviewed around 150 people on camera. In an article for The Hollywood Reporter, Dick highlights that they have rebutted every concern that has been made on their website.

The most notable point in these criticisms, is that no school has asked for a specific retraction of any part of the film, because "there is nothing to retract- it's completely true".

But ‘validity’ of victims’ accounts is nonetheless a point of contention for some people. In an article Emily Yoffe explains the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the case of Kamilah Willingham, who describes that her drink was drugged by a classmate she believed to be her friend, who then raped Willingham and her female companion.

Not only does Yoffe highlight aspects of the case that are left out in The Hunting Ground, but she also states that Harvard did not ignore Willingham's complaints like she suggests, but actually investigated the issue thoroughly.

In a similar way, Cathy Young points out that the case of Emma Sulkowicz (the student famous for carrying her mattress on campus as a form of protest) highlights that there are hugely different details in that case than most mainstream media would suggest.

But in both these cases, it is simple to stick to the official line and undermine the victims’ accounts when the main issue raised in The Hunting Ground is that these official accounts don’t successfully include the voice of the victims in the first place.

This criticism in turn could be seen to be doing little more than perpetuating the situation that the film is addressing.

Another point of contention is around the definition of ‘sexual assault’. In a National Crime Victimization survey between 1995-2000, rape is clearly defined as "forced sexual intercourse" and sexual assault includes crimes such as "completed or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between the victim and offender". However in a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study, sexual assault is defined as "any unwanted sexual contact occurring when a victim is unable to provide consent or stop what is happening because she is passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep".

It also highlights that this is regardless of whether the perpetrator was responsible for the alcohol consumption or if she consumed it on her own.

Sabrina Schaeffer (executive director of the Forum) suggests that this definition leads to confusion between regretful sexual decisions made while under the influence of alcohol which can be unjustly be seen as rape. Cathy Young notes that "This is trivializing to the experience of women who unfortunately have had the experience of being violently raped".

Whilst a valid discussion this is a side issue to the matter at hand – that, regardless of definition, sexual assault is not being dealt with seriously. How it is defined is sometimes used to undermine the whole discussion.

The success of the film in creating awareness for a highly underestimated issue cannot be denied. The film has been screened nearly a thousand times at high schools and universities.

The White House supports it, as well as hundreds of college presidents, school administrators, research scientists, parents and students who have "championed" the film.

Despite the criticism that the film has faced, Kirby Dick takes pride in "shining a light on something they don't want seen", through the medium of documentary film, which is possibly the most powerful tool for these issues.

It is obviously a film that needed to be made, and just because it has been met with criticism does not mean its message of the film should be disregarded.

In fact, if anything, the nature of the criticism supports the need for open discussion and to raise serious challenges to the current dominant narrative surrounding sexual assault and rape.

Any ‘inaccuracies’ in the movie can been seen as a symptom of a wider problem. Despite the debates which surround the film, it is incredibly powerful and must be accepted as a means of encouraging people to do more about the very real issue of rape on American university campuses.

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