Kirby Dick’s 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground is a damning exploration of the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. The film was released a few months before Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and examines some of the same issues — rape culture and the institutions that protect perpetrators — and digs into them on a nationwide scale. The Hunting Ground is also a fantastically inspiring film about a student movement by virtue of its focus on two former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who filed a Title IX complaint against the school and set off a domino effect of student activism across the country.
Dick is one of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival’s retrospective filmmakers this year, and several of his films are being screened here, including The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War (about sexual assault in the military) and Twist of Faith (sexual abuse in the Catholic Church). Also screening will be Derrida, his portrait of the famous French philosopher, and other films that feature people butting up against mainstream culture. We spoke with Dick about The Hunting Ground.
How were you first introduced to the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses, and when did you decide it was a documentary you wanted to make?
Kirby Dick: I made the film The Invisible War, and that was about rape in the military, and we had a very extensive college tour with that. It seemed like every time my producer Amy Ziering and I would screen the film at schools, one or more students would come up afterwards and say, “This same thing happens here. Please make a movie on it.” Then we started getting emails and actual letters from people asking us to do it. It was pretty surprising and we realized how urgent the issue was and that it was sort of the same issue as the military, where it was ubiquitous but nobody was talking about it or writing about it. We started making the film just as the student movement [against sexual assault] started — within months of it. And that’s one of the reasons why we were able to get Annie and Andrea and follow their work. It took a couple of months to decide to make the film, but it came together pretty quickly.
What conversation did you have with Amy Ziering about how to approach this story? What were you trying to achieve?
KD: What we were interested in was making sure it wasn’t just about one college or one case or just a couple of schools. We wanted to show this was an issue on all campuses, whether they were big or small, liberal or conservative, football schools or fine arts schools. We wanted to show the same thing with the military, but it was a lot easier because, you know, all roads lead to the Pentagon, right? Here, you have thousands of schools across the country. We decided to take a wide range of schools, public, Ivy League, and we looked at probably more than 100 cases at 50 schools. We ended up speaking to, I’m sure, hundreds and hundreds of survivors, and then also people who were familiar with the subject — journalists, a therapist, a whole range of people. We went at it extremely broadly, which no one had really done before. There had been reporting on [the issue], but for the most part the reporting was focused on individual cases and schools, and so people would walk away from reading an article thinking, “Well that one school is a ‘rape school.’” And that’s one of the misconceptions we wanted to counter.
With the #MeToo movement really exploding in the past year, and with at least some people and organizations being held publicly accountable for sexual assault, does this time period feel different from the time when you filmed The Hunting Ground?
KD: Yeah, it does. It does because when we were making both of those films there was a great deal of disbelief of women and men, who are survivors, talking about this issue. That, to a significant extent, has changed, and I think we should all be really grateful for that. Another thing I’d like to say is the #MeToo movement has come together from a lot of different sources, and there have been a lot of courageous survivors and a lot of great writing on it. And I think one of the threads that gets overlooked is the group of survivors in The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground. These are people who were coming forward when people weren’t speaking that broadly about the issue of sexual assault. Those survivors were, I think, one of the catalysts for the movement.
Your film came out just a few months before Jon Krakauer’s book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. How closely did you follow that story?
KD: We followed it. We did some investigating of it and we thought about shooting something about it for the film, but we decided not to just because we were spread really thin. But we were paying a great deal of attention to it.
What were the elements of this film that struck you most as you were making it?
KD: Many things, I think, but two things struck us most. One in particular was how many of these stories people were telling about [sexual assault] and how they were approached — usually a woman approached by a man. That the perpetrator was someone who seemed to be experienced and had done this before. There seemed to be a lot of very calculated perpetrator activity. There’s this concept that the vast majority of assaults are people stumbling into sex, and maybe a guy going over the line when he shouldn’t, but statistics bear out, and we saw it anecdotally, that it was just the opposite, that most of these assaults seemed to be by repeat offenders. And the other thing that struck us — a surprisingly high percentage of the assaults seemed to be drug-assisted. Again, this is purely anecdotal, but just looking very closely at the narratives, as many as 15 to 20 percent may have been. Obviously there was probably alcohol involved in a lot of those, too, but we’d done enough of these interviews to get a sense that there were [other] drugs involved. Most of these drugs wear off so quickly that by the time you get tested you can’t discern any trace of them. But, also, a lot of these tests only detect overdose levels. We had a pretty in-depth conversation with an expert at the FBI who totally corroborated that many if not most labs in the country, if they’re testing for [rape-assisted] drugs, they are not using a test with high enough sensitivity.
Your documentaries deal in a wide range of subject matter, but is there a common thread within them?
KD: It took me a long time to realize this, but I think I’m drawn to outsiders. I’m drawn to a counter-mainstream, counter-establishment perspective. So there’s Jacques Derrida, who was certainly, in terms of philosophy, perceived as coming from the outside. And then obviously the survivors of sexual assault in several of the films, they are completely outsiders. Likewise, with This Film is Not Yet Rated, the outsiders were the independent filmmakers and, to some degree, foreign filmmakers that were critiquing Hollywood. With Outrage, which is about the hypocrisy of closeted politicians voting anti-gay, there were these activists that were shunned for speaking the truth.
If you were to do a follow-up to The Hunting Ground, maybe not a sequel but something in the same vein, what or who would you focus on?
KD: Well, right now we are making a film about sexual assault in Hollywood, and we’re well into production on that. It’s fascinating. It’s a different kind of challenge, because with most of the other films we were digging up something that had been buried and fighting against an attempt to keep those things secret. In this film, there are still attempts to keep stories secret that we’re aware of, and we’re trying to corroborate those and bring forward. But fortunately, a lot of people have become a lot more public about sexual assault, so in addition to our own investigation, one of the things we want this film to do is capture this whole movement. So much is happening and it’s hard to get a sense of everything, but we’re very experienced in this field and we want to be able to — we hope to be able to — represent it as a really important historical movement that’s happening.
The Hunting Ground screens at the Elks Lodge Mon., Feb. 19 at 1 PM.
This Film is Not Yet Rated screens at the Roxy Sat., Feb. 17 at 5 PM.
The Invisible War screens at the Roxy Sun., Feb. 18, at 2 PM.
Derrida screens at MCT Center for the Performing Arts Sun. Feb. 18, at 10:45 AM.
Outrage screens at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts Mon., Feb. 19 at 10:45 AM.