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Interview: Kirby Dick on “The Hunting Ground”

Continuing its expansion into Chicago this weekend, director Kirby Dick’s necessary documentary “The Hunting Ground”exposes the neglected sexual assault epidemic occurring on college campuses across the nation, and its horrific responses in particular from image-anxious school administrations. While many colleges express in press releases that they take the incidents “very seriously,”statistics concerning the one in five women who will be sexually assaulted (with only five percent reported), along with the estimation that 100,000 college students will be assaulted in the upcoming year, paint a disturbing, unmistakably different picture.

Engaging viewers with the stories of survivors who put a name, face, and experience to a slew of statistics, the film also follows the activism of Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of the End Rape on Campus organization, as they discover a way to hold the colleges that they love accountable for their disturbingly poor response.

A must-see for students as much as their parents and college administrators, “The Hunting Ground”has the powerful ideologies within its outrage to change the nation’s muffled discussion on the issue, including the forfeit of the disgusting practice of victim-blaming, to encouraging campuses to acknowledge these events, and even more so, to act upon them. 

On the day of the film’s opening in Chicago, RogerEbert.com sat down with Dick to discuss his riveting film, the way that students and activists influenced its filmmaking, his choice to feature the names and stories of assault survivors, and more.

When crafting this and interviewing these subjects, do you have to become more detached as an editor?  

KIRBY DICK: Yes and no, I guess I would say. I mean, obviously you have to maintain an objectivity to this material, because you’re trying to construct something and you have to sort of be outside of it to construct it. But on the other hand, you have to still be emotionally affected by this because if you’re emotionally affected, you know that audiences are very likely going to be as well. I won’t say it’s schizophrenic, but you’re kind of looking at things from both perspectives at the same time. I think that’s true in many ways about any artist making any piece of art.

Especially when youre done making films like The Invisible War [about sexual assault in the military] and The Hunting Ground,are you able to separate yourself from the material, or is it always rattling in your brain?

Yeah, it becomes a part of who you are every time you make a film that this is such an intense subject and intense experience. And even in screenings, people are standing up and saying that they went to school thirty years ago and they say something happened to them, and they’re talking about it publicly for the first time and breaking down. Or, people come up to you afterwards and you can just see in their eyes. But if it’s affecting people that way, hopefully it will help to make change.

Was the film always planned to use the names of survivors, and feature their stories concerning incidents on campuses?

Yes. But we actually did some interviews where we interviewed them both in focus, and then we had this sort of out-of-focus idea with the background in focus. I had never seen it before, and we were thinking that if we ended up using those interviews, it will be kind of novel, instead of [using] shadows. But we had so many people, sadly, who had been assaulted and we didn’t need to use that tactic. I think that’s there’s something about having the name and the face that I think means even more to audiences. Because not only can you see them, but also you acknowledge the courage and the risk that these people are taking to help, not only to be a part of the film, but to address these issues to society.

How did you pitch the film to your subjects before interviewing them?

Well, Amy Ziering, the producer, did the interviews with the survivors.

Was that a specific choice?

Yeah, we did the same thing with “The Invisible War,”I mean partially because most of the survivors we were dealing with were women, but also because she has an excellent interview style to begin with, even for people who aren’t survivors. She’s very empathetic, and very warm. She’s a mother and she has three daughters, and she’s able to create a really safe space for them. We say that their health and well-being is most important, and that they could start and stop, and anything that they don’t want to say they don’t have to. We really want people to feel protected, and I think they do.

What challenges did you face in filming on the college campuses where survivors had been assaulted? Did you have any problems with security guards, or getting permits, or anything like that?

In most cases, we didn’t get permission because schools were not going to grant that. In many cases, students on that campus were doing the filming, particularly at the protests. There’s a number of reasons. We’re dealing with thousands of campuses, and we were monitoring hundreds of campuses, and we couldn’t be everywhere. But secondly, students are able to get places with cameras that even we couldn’t because we’d have to get in permits. In some ways, the film was crowdsourced. Not only were we working with the hundreds of survivors, but we were interacting with dozens of student filmmakers.

Did you reach out to film programs?

Yeah, film programs, or the activists would know somebody who was a filmmaker. It was the entire range. With the quality of the equipment that has become available and just sort of the experience, I think that people in college making films, they’re oftentimes making them for as long as ten years, the craft level of students is really quite remarkable, and has gone way up. So we were very happy to work with them.

The film spends a fair amount of time with subjects Annie and Andrea, who have co-founded the organization End Rape on Campus (EROC). When did they get involved with the filmmaking process?

They came in very early on. I think we were in contact with them in March of 2013, and I think they filed their Title IX complaint in January of 2013. They were just beginning to speak about it as a national issue, and we were following many stories and other activists, but we thought that this would be a good story to follow. And we thought that maybe it would become one of the stories. We never thought that it would achieve in so short a time what they have been able to achieve: visiting the White House, getting involved with the writing of legislation, helping to file dozens of Title IX complaints, but everything has shifted so fast on this issue in the last couple of years.

Did they influence how you wanted to make the film, and change any part of your perspective?

In terms of understanding the issue, yeah. They were so essential to that part of the process. You can’t understand this issue unless you talk to survivors, and talk to activists. They’re there on the ground, they’ve had the experience. They’ve been extremely helpful. And they had some ideas that were good. For example, I think I was thinking that you see all of these press releases from schools, and they’re always avoiding talking about the issue. I said, “Let’s look for one term, or one phrase and see if it can be repeated.”And I think it was either Annie or Andrea who was in the office at that time, and she said “They all say, ‘we take this very seriously.’”So, we started to look for that phrase and bam! It always came up. But I really like to work with subjects, and include them into the creative exploration of the process.

Does that include showing them different cuts?

They saw it in the later stages, but they had ideas that were helpful. They know the issue backwards and forwards.

Did you have a set idea for what you wanted the tone to be of this movie? Or did it evolve?

It evolved. We didn’t think that the story of Annie and Andrea was going to be so rousing at the end. That shifted. But yes and no. If things aren’t changing, you’re not improving.

With this film and after making Invisible War,did you have a more set idea of what viewers respond to, especially in terms to any stigma of making people engage with an uncomfortable subject?

Yes, absolutely. Certainly in regards to how to fashion a survivor’s story, to the extent of how detailed to go, and to what level of detail you go into a sexual assault’s description. The sad thing is that if we put in their whole stories, it would be too much for people to bear. It’s the shading of that.

The Hunting Ground opens up the idea that college is indeed a great experience, but that these events are a tragedy.

Yeah. It’s amazing to watch these survivors and activists, as they’re still wearing the sweatshirts with their school logos on them, even when they’re not in the school. There is a profound love of the school from these activists and survivors, and I think they’re trying to change their school.

When making a film like this, are you thinking about the people who may not initially agree with the films perspective? Are you concerned with that? Or do you want to just make the film, and then get it out there?

Oh no, you think about audiences. We want this to appeal to a range of audiences: Students, alumni , administrators, the public, politicians, and even people who may come to this film with a different perspective on this issue. I think it is hard for people to watch this film —and I’ve kind of seen this —for people to walk away and not feel transformed. Because when you hear the voices of survivors, and they talk about their experiences, it is a lot different than reading about it. It’s completely different. But I think about a range of audiences, and I think you have to when making a film.

I was at Sundance this past year, and I saw director Jennifer Siebel Newsoms The Mask You Live In,and I know shes a producer of this film. Is there any relation to this film from that film? Theyd play nicely together in a double feature.

They play very nicely together. I think that with Jennifer’s two films (2015’s “The Mask You Live in”and 2011’s “Miss Representation”), the reason that they’ve made such an impact is that she has gone back to the sort of issues that I think this country has …how do I say this? She’s able to get down to the real core issues that this country has thought we’ve dealt with, and in fact we haven’t. And she’s gone down just right to the core and grabbed these underlying issues, and certainly the way that boys and girls are learning about these issues. There’s something extremely insightful and fundamental about these films, which is why they’re getting such an incredible response.

When youre watching documentary films, what do you want out of them? Do you believe in the idea that its hard to get people to see certain films?

Well, yes. You’re trying to make a filmmaking experience that’s rich and emotional and memorable. But when I’m watching films, I look for risk. And that can be in any kind of form, that can be in a minimal, sort of observational kind of art film, or it can be in a veritéfilm where somebody is in a very emotional, personal situation, or it can be in an advocacy film. The films can be all of the above. But I’m interested in people who go into material that hasn’t been covered in a film before, or even in books, where they’re sort of the first one there, certainly “The Invisible War”is like that, not to say that there weren’t a few books. My feeling is that if there’s not a risk of failure, you’re limiting the potential of your success.

Can you think any film titles off the top of your head that particularly intrigue your interest in risk?

In a political stance, there was that documentary on fracking, 2010’s “Gasland.”And of course, [“Citizenfour”director] Laura Poitras has been working with that element in every one of her films. She’s working in the axises of the personal and the political, and they both had risks. And I think Steve James is amazing. “The Interrupters,”and his whole project around race, is just amazing. He is so insightful and thoughtful. And “The Interrupters,”talk about risk. Not only are you in that environment, but there’s also, there’s no clear answers. And also, it becomes much riskier to make a film when there are not clear answers. In a way that is different than Jennifer Siebel Newsom, he brought up something that the country is just not thinking about.

I believe The Interrupterscould very well change the world, and I see your film side-by-side with it in that sense. But related to that, what change have you seen from your previous documentaries, and even now with The Hunting Ground?

Well, with “The Invisible War”there were quite a few reforms that came. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led the charge on a lot of reforms, and became involved [with the issue] after seeing the film. We’re seeing colleges and universities programming [“The Hunting Ground,”] and we’ve got more than 125 schools, and that’s a very good sign. There’s so many people within the administrations that just want change, and just like in the military for “The Invisible War,”“The Hunting Ground”is being programmed by those administrators. I think it’s happening. School-by-school, it starts a movement towards reform. 


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