Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Confront the Crisis on Campus

Published February 27, 2015

A COLLEGE CAMPUS IN THE HUNTING GROUND. COURTESY OF RADiUS.

When writer/director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering released The Invisible War in 2012, a visceral account of sexual assault in the American military and the institutional practices prohibiting survivors from obtaining justice, the film packed a sucker punch to the gut. The filmmakers, who previously worked together on Derrida [2002], a documentary on the late French philosopher’s life, and Outrage [2009], an incisive look at closeted politicians advocating for anti-LGBT legislation, dive deep into the national campus rape epidemic and the college system’s mishandling of assault accusations in their latest documentary effort, The Hunting Ground, out today.

Speaking to both female and male survivors of sexual assault at schools across the nation as varied as Harvard, Swarthmore, UC Berkeley, and Florida State, Kirby and Ziering expose a slew of devastating statistics and practices (serial offenders commit 91% of sexual assaults on campus; a survivor at Yale was told after reporting her rape that her assault proved how much her rapist “loved her;” more students are expelled for cheating than for sex crimes), and confront how financial incentives, the fraternity system, and the college sports industry all play into motivating colleges to blanket the issue of rape on campus.

At the core of Dick’s narrative are Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, former students at UNC Chapel Hill who became friends after facing similar indifference in the cases of their own assaults (in the film, Clark describes being told by an administrator: “Rape is like a football game. If you look back at the game, is there anything you would have done differently?”). The pair have spearheaded a nationwide activist movement, educating themselves in the law of Title IX complaints and connecting with survivors across the country, co-founding the organization End Rape on Campus (EROC). Dick captures them on the move in real time, visiting campuses, strategizing paperwork, and lobbying for reform. When the film premiered last month at Sundance, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Barbara Boxer attended.

Arriving at a very timely moment, when sexual assault on campus is moving into the national discourse in a major way, The Hunting Ground allows those previously silenced to share their stories. Interview spoke with Dick and Ziering last week in New York.

COLLEEN KELSEY: After finishing The Invisible War, was it a natural progression to work on this subject matter?

AMY ZIERING: It actually wasn’t.

KIRBY DICK: It’s logical.

ZIERING: It’s a natural question, but no, it wasn’t. We usually work in very different arenas. What happened was we had finished Invisible War; we were working on another film. In the course of doing the outreach for Invisible War, going around to show the film and talk on campuses, time and again, someone would come up to us and say, “Actually, this happened to me here. There’s a lot of what you pointed out going on in the military, went on on my campus. Would you make a film on this subject? Then we started getting letters in our inboxes: “Dear … will you make a film on this topic? Here’s what happened to me.” We’d hear these horrible stories. After about three months of that, we looked at each other and said, “You know, actually, how can we not make this film?” Then we started investigating and found out that everything people had said to us was not only true, but much, much worse. We immediately dove in.

KELSEY: Where did you begin, with the research or with speaking with survivors?

DICK: The two feed each other. Because we had made Invisible War, there was certainly a trust in dealing with us. I think people felt much safer speaking out because they had seen what had happened to the other survivors in The Invisible War and the impact that it made. Although, there was still a great deal of fear because in so many cases, these survivors of sexual assault on college campuses had gone to their school, and the school had victim-blamed them and not investigated the crime properly. As far as the research, we went out in all directions. We wanted to look at this from not just an individual school or a couple of schools, but as a national problem. We were in contact with survivors at dozens and dozens of schools, hundreds of survivors across the country, and dozens of activists. It was a major investigative reporting undertaking.

KELSEY: In terms of statistics, so many of these numbers are skewed in terms of how many assaults actually occur, how many are reported, and then how assault rates are deflated by schools looking to keep the appearance of assault rates down. Did you receive any pushback doing your field research?

DICK: I wouldn’t say there was necessarily pushback, but there was an incredible fear about speaking out. It was almost impossible to get administrators to speak. We were able to get a few, but you know that there are thousands who could say the same thing. Likewise with faculty. I mean, I was shocked. Colleges and universities are free speech zones, right? You just think that way. Yet when it came to the faculty, the fear was just off the charts. They were not only afraid to speak because they were concerned about their job at that institution, but they were concerned about their entire career. If they were terminated at that institution, then it would be difficult for them to get a job somewhere else because they were labeled a whistleblower. I think that’s a very sad comment on higher education as a whole. Whistleblowers, which are cultural treasures, should certainly be supported by institutions of higher learning.

KELSEY: Well, the irony of it all is how many of these schools are packaging themselves as a corporation or a brand in terms of their financial interests rather than a safe haven for students.

ZIERING: That’s we found shocking. It’s counterintuitive, but schools are incentivized actually to protect themselves and not their students when it comes down to these kinds of situations. What are those incentives? Well, good alumni relations, stronger fundraising possibilities. You don’t want any ostensible blemishes that could affect your PR campaigns.

KELSEY: At what point did you decide to start following Andrea and Annie’s work?

DICK: We started filming them in mid-April of 2013, right from the very beginning when we were making the film. It was just a couple of months, I think, after they filed their Title IX complaint and had gone public. You could already see the beginnings of some sort of impact, certainly on their campus, but they were already starting to network with other survivors. You could sense that maybe there was a beginning of a student movement brewing. None of us had any idea how far it would go and how much it would change the national debate-their work and other national activists’ as well. But from a filmmaking perspective, we wanted to get in as close to the beginning as possible. We felt very fortunate to be able to chart this whole rise in real-time. I think that’s one of the things that makes the film very dramatic and also more hopeful than The Invisible War.

ZIERING: Watching the student movement build and grow was empowering. And the traction! The fact that you could start with Annie and Andrea and end up at the White House was kind of astonishing. [laughs] It was shocking to me to see these what I would consider 1950s ideas prevalent on our campuses today. That was without fail, everywhere I went, and I was stunned. I went to school in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I’m a privileged product of Take Back the Night. To me, this just seemed so foreign and retroactive. I still can’t really process it. It’s a different universe than the one I experienced.

DICK: I think everyone who first comes to this issue thinks that this issue has been addressed on college campuses, and that’s anything but the truth.

KELSEY: The way some of these administrations are dealing with punishments and the compliance with the culture of victim-blaming—I’m thinking of some of the punishments you listed, like making a poster board detailing “10 different ways how to approach a girl you like,” etc…and reducing assaults to “hook-ups gone bad.”

ZIERING: It didn’t compute. I was in the position of doing the interviews with the survivors. Kirby’s with me and follows up, but I’m in the same position these people are speaking with, in talking to an administrator. Seeing how I responded to their story, I couldn’t imagine another person responding otherwise and responding in the ways that they described. I still can’t! You know, these are young kids. As our film points out, when you understand this issue, it is so rare for someone to falsely report something like this. It is so embarrassing to talk about your personal sex life with a stranger. To do it for vindictive purposes or self-aggrandizement is a fluke. It’s not the norm. So, 92 to 98 percent of these people are telling the truth. How can you not, as a human, respond to that? This is a horrible thing that happened to someone.

KELSEY: I think something that’s really important here is that the college environment allows true predators, the small percentage of offenders committing these crimes, to hide in plain sight, behind the partying culture and these administrations’ warped views on what constitutes assault.

DICK: That is true. I mean, a lot of these people are very entitled and very respected, and they use that as a way of not only selecting victims but also protecting themselves.

ZIERING: And the colleges’ reticence to prosecute for their own self-interest, as you said, provides perfect storm conditions for these predators to prey with impunity.

KELSEY: Many of the higher-ups at the universities you approached would not speak on the record about this issue, correct?

DICK: This is not surprising. They haven’t for decades. That’s why we put that little montage “We take this very seriously,” because that’s usually what would happen. They put out a spokesperson who would say, “We take this very seriously,” or they just put out a statement. That language will at least change as a result of our film. [laughs]

KELSEY: What are your thoughts on how the Obama administration has come out behind this issue? Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Barbara Boxer attended the Sundance premiere.

DICK: We were very, very pleased and continue to be pleased at how much his administration and Vice President Biden are pushing this issue. It’s really remarkable. We’ve never had an administration take the issue of sexual assault in general on in this way. Likewise, Congress, as well. There seems to be a real feeling that the reforms they’re putting forward could actually get through Congress, which would be—

KELSEY: Huge.

DICK: Particularly in these times, where nothing gets through. But even the fact that they’re really being debated seriously is a real tribute to our government.

THE HUNTING GROUND IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY.