The Hunting Ground (SFF Film Review)

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The Hunting Ground is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival. You can purchase your tickets here.

Sexual assault experiences the same amount of false claims as every other crime (that includes robbery, car jacking and murder) and yet it is the only crime where a false claim is the immediate assumption, and the presumed guilt of the victim needs to be attended to prior to a proper investigation of the alleged assailant takeing place. Another shocking fact that comes out of The Hunting Ground, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s extraordinary piece of activist journalism, is the amount of male on male sexual assault stats rapidly rising as victims are coming forward – something men find very difficult because of the victim association and feminising mythology of rape. It is this information gathering, all carefully source cited, that takes The Hunting Ground away from its specific United States Alumni locale and contributes more to the global conversation about rape, its persistence and prevention, than their previous, enormously moving film The Invisible War. The Invisible War used the simple documentary style of still cameras filming several women as they progressively told their horror stories, not just of their sexual assault in the United States military, but of the systemic control that sees victims not only silenced but overtly punished for speaking out. The same fate awaits victims of College campuses in America who speak out about their sexual assault, but this time the punishment is metered out by the community associated with the universities.

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Although the formats are similar, several striking differences make The Hunting Ground a superior film and a more courageous one, revealing that Kirby Dick has learnt a great deal about the power of these films in the two years between. The Silent War began the conversation about sexual assault perpetrators being repeat offenders, but this taken further in The Hunting Ground, making the clear and concise case that not all men are rapists, rather that a rapist is a repeat offender who takes the support of their society as permission to continue offending. This was an important point made in The Silent War, but it didn’t have the same punch, as males in the military (15% of men who join the US military have a history of sexual assault, twice the community figure) as it does will a college, simply because those males are entering society. It is here that The Hunting Ground makes its powerful point about money, and the way that institutional loyalty and those sorts of passions become the fertile soil for predators, in the same way one might argue the church or a school is an attractive place for practising pedophiles to operate. In fact, The Hunting Ground goes further to state taking an accused sex offender through the system and finding them innocent is a form of education in itself, teaching the rapist how to act with a greater chance of freedom from detection in the future.

Powerful information about the nature of sexual predators is meticulously catalogued. They plan their assaults in advance (almost all sexual assaults happen this way) they attack women they know, and they set up friendships and other sorts of relationships in order to gain the women’s (or man’s) trust. They use alcohol as a weapon, drugging women so they are incapable of fighting back, or so they wake the next day assuming they were complicit in their assault. They will choose their moment based on the clothing their victim is wearing that night, and if she is with friends in a bar etc, because they know she will be accused after they assault her. All these statistics debunk the mythology around the back seat fumble where she whispered a seductive “I’m not quite ready” and he worked her up and it all happened because he has trouble after he’s aroused. Rape isn’t that behaviour, it is a premeditated crime about which the assailant lies after the fact, because it is highly likely he will be believed.

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What is equally astonishing about rape and sexual assault is the protection afforded assailants by the community, part of which is an aggressive attack (that will include a death threat if they are marginally successful) on the victim if they manage to get their voice heard. In The Hunting Ground the universities are openly accused of covering up sexual assault in order to protect their funding, as in the The Silent War, the US military is accused, but what becomes evident in The Hunting Ground as woman after woman tells their story and they have horrifically similar elements, is that institutions are a hot bed of protective cloistering around perpetrators of sexual assault. This extends into the police force, the legal system and clubs. The film doesn’t make the claim, but it isn’t just a macho culture that protects and encourages (nurtures) rapists, it is almost any institution that claims its own special protections above the common law to which citizens must comply. There won’t be a country in the world that has a sporting culture that doesn’t feel the power of the persuasive and heated arguments The Hunting Ground is able to solicit from its clear facts and statistics.

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The Hunting Ground has been criticised for its upbeat, “power of activism” ending, but it is never a secret that the film is a form of activism itself and its primary intention is as a tool for change. Its closing positive note is a clarion call to speak out and to stand for change, something the film advocates through inspirational narrative as well as the close following of activists working for transformation. It doesn’t make for great film making in the artistic sense, but it does make for a powerful call to arms, as well as a convincing take on subject matter that many good people still grapple with. Most of all it is a clear simple tool for education around a subject about which we know surprisingly little, considering how much it affects each of us.

Highly recommended.

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