Kirby Dick has returned to the director's chair for his latest documentary The Hunting Ground, which has been winning rave reviews while playing on the festival circuit and on college campuses.
The Hunting Ground explores the huge numbers of sexual assault incidents on college campuses throughout America and how some of the biggest and most prestigious schools in the U.S. have done nothing to help the victims or catch or punish those involved.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about The Hunting Ground, how the film project came about, and what he hopes people will take away when they see this hard-hitting movie.
- The Hunting Ground is your new film, so can you tell me a bit about it?
The Hunting Ground is a film about the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and about the long history of those institutions covering up those assaults.
- Once again you are tackling the subject of sexual assault - as you did with your previous film The Invisible War - so where did this project start for you? And what made you want to revisit this topic - albeit in a different setting?
I made this film with my producer Amy Ziering and, as you said, we had made the film The Invisible War. After we finished The Invisible War, we had set out to make a completely different film that had nothing to do with sexual assault. We were continuing to take out The Invisible War to college campuses and in the Q&A's that followed, questions would turn very quickly from rape in the military - which is what The Invisible War was about - to rape on college campuses.
This kept happening again and again. People would come up to us after the Q&A's and tell us what had happened to them and on what campus. We then started getting emails from people saying 'this happened to me. Can you please make a film about it.' We could see that there was a real problem and we could see that this was a real issue that was bubbling up in the United States and we decided to put aside our other film and make this film.
- Going into this film, how much did you know about the levels of rape and sexual assault on college campuses? How shocked were you at the numbers that are revealed in the film?
As many as 20% of students will suffer rape or sexual assault while at college.
I knew that it was a problem on college campuses, but I had no idea how extensive the problem was and how high the numbers were. I was also very astonished to realise the amount of fear that there was on college campuses in terms of talking about it; particularly the faculty and administrators. They were very aware of the problems, but they were afraid to speak out because they would face reprisals.
That was a very real fear and it was something that we saw happen on numerous occasions in the United States. I think of college and universities as free-speech zones where people can pretty much say what they want but, in this instance, that was absolutely not the case and facility and administrators were very unwilling to speak about the problems that existed on their campus.
- You have brought together a group of very brave young men and women who have come forward to tell their story, so how did you find them. How long did you follow them to learn about their stories?
We were following people for nearly two years and we started focusing on our two main subjects - Annie Clark and Andrea Pino from the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill - in early 2013; shortly after they has begun their activism. We were able to follow them and other students around the country over the next two years. We were actually able to follow the rise of the new student movement as it was happening.
In the process of making the film, we reached out to hundreds of survivors and interviewed them. What was so troubling, is that in nearly every case when they came forward with their assault, the institution, instead of handling it properly, blamed them and did everything they could to keep it covered up. They did not help the victims or take the time to investigate the crime properly.
- I was reading that you shot interviews two ways: both in shadow and with their faces clear - how much reluctance did you face in getting them to talk about their experiences?
Well, we faced a fair about of reluctance because, in many cases, the last time they had spoken out they were not supported and, in some cases, experienced retaliation and reprisals from their school. They were initially very reluctant to speak. Once they understood... many of them were aware of The Invisible War, they knew that we could handle this material with sensitivity, and once we had conversations with them, they felt comfortable enough to come forward.
It is a real tribute to their courage as it takes a lot of a survivor to come forward and publicly- or even privately - discuss their assault. To publicly discuss their assault in such a high-profile documentary was a very big step. The reason that nearly all of them took that step was because they didn't want it to happen to another person. They wanted to be a part of the solution.
- Annie and Andrea are two particularly inspiration figures in the film, so how did you meet them? And what was your time like with these two incredibly strong women?
As I said, we met them very early in the shooting process and shortly after they had become public and started reaching out to other students around the country. Working with them was just a wonderful experience. They understood the issue very well, they were able to put us in contact with other survivors.
Again, we were just very fortunate to get them at the very beginning of their national activism. It is a rare thing for a documentary to capture something in process like this; particularly something that is happening around the country. We were following dozens of stories on dozens of campuses so we could get a comprehensive at this issue and the rise of the student activism.
- How essential and influential were Annie and Andrea when making this film?
Their influence was more in their raising awareness of this issue around the country. The way I generally work with my subject is I follow them, I interview them and then I take that material and make the film that I think is the best examination of the issue and best conveys what is actually happening. I wouldn't say that they were influential in the filmmaking process, but they and other activists initiated a historic student movement that has put this issue on the national agenda.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process - you had one on one interviews, on the road footage, college images - so how tricky a process was it to piece all that together to make the film that we see on screen?
It was massive undertaking actually. We had nearly a thousand hours of footage. This is my eleventh feature film and I am used to working with hundreds of hours of material and I do have a methodology to tackle that. However, this was particularly challenging. We were working with excellent editors and excellent producers so I was able to pull it all together.
- At the end of the film, it clearly says that no one at the colleges involved wanted to come on camera and talk openly about this issue. How frustrating was that for you as a filmmaker? Did their lack of involvement change the kind of documentary that you wanted to make?
It wasn't surprising to us that presidents did not want to speak. We were fortunate to interview two presidents, one who is in the film and one that we didn't have room to include, but dozens of presidents in colleges refused. And it wasn't just presidents, it was administrators as well. This is part of the problem, you just don't see higher level administrators at colleges and universities coming forward and talking about this issue. Without that, not only are people not aware that this is a problem, but there's no leadership towards a solution.
What we would like to see is college presidents stepping up and acknowledging that it is a problem on their campus, saying that they are going to make it a priority, put money into addressing the problem, and they can be held accountable if improvements are made; that is leadership. We are really still waiting for that from college presidents in the United States.
- The movie has been playing on the festival circuit, so how have you been finding the response to the film?
It has been playing on the festival circuit, it has been released theatrically, and it has received phenomenal reviews. It has played on more than five hundred college and universities campuses and more than sixty high schools. The response has been overwhelming. Each time it plays on a college campus, it starts a movement of reform on that campus. Campus by campus, you are seeing this film instigating the first steps towards change.
- What do you hope people will take away from the film when they see it?
I certainly hope that people are more aware of the issue; that has been part of the problem as the issue has been covered up for decades. I also hope that people understand the experience of the survivors, in terms of the assault and what happens when they come forward. Finally, I hope people are angered, are moved to action, and are moved to pressure these institutions to reform.
Without pressure from within, as you see with these students, these institutions, like any institutions and all institutions, will not change and will continue with business as usual. The first impulse of any institution if they come across a problem is to keep it covered up and if they keep doing that, they are not going to address the problem.
- Finally, what's next for you?
We are looking at another major national issue, but it is not something that we can talk about at this time. We have just begun to film and it will probably be a couple of years before we have finished.