Tuesday, June 21, 2016

OVP: The Hunting Ground (2015)

Film: The Hunting Ground (2015)
Director: Kirby Dick
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"Til It Happens to You")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

Frequently with documentaries I find myself at a crossroads, where I realize that the film in question is a particularly strong issue that I thoroughly believe in it, but either the facts presented or the documentary's style feels ineffective, and I am led to a strange paradox where I am talking about an important issue but admonishing the film that is trying to bring it to light.  This occasionally results in me giving a film a better review than I actually should have based solely on trying to get more people to see a film that is, in fact, not as good as it could be.  This will not be the case for The Hunting Ground, however.  A film that tackles an issue that is in desperate need of attention in our country, that of curbing sexual violence and rape on college campuses, should be able to present compelling arguments, but instead relies heavily on mismanaged data, shoddy journalistic standards, and uses personal stories to cover up a relatively biased point-of-view.  The film is unfortunate because this is an important issue, and these victim's stories should be told to help shed a light on a need for more justice when it comes to sexual violence in America, but The Hunting Ground is centered around an important subject, but is not an important film.

The film centers around a number of different cases of women who were the victims of sexual assault on major universities across the country.  Frequently we see the iconic logos of institutions like Harvard, Notre Dame, and UNC pushed against the backdrop of heartbreaking, terrible testimony about not just sexual assaults on campus, but also how the university muffled the claims of victims of sexual violence on campuses in order to protect more lucrative institutions on campuses such as fraternities and college athletics.  This feels authentic, and certainly fits the narrative that has been shaped by politicians and the media surrounding this subject, but we never actually get to hear from current members of the faculties or the legal teams of these universities.  I'm not saying that they would have necessarily been able to repudiate these claims, but it is disturbing to me that we are to take the words of the documentarians in the film over ever having an interview with a member of the leadership of one of these institutions.  If the schools didn't want to be reached out for comment, that should have been exhibited here, but it's difficult to imagine that of the dozens of colleges that are exhibited throughout the film that none of them had an opposing viewpoint to share with the filmmakers, particularly considering that schools like Harvard or FSU were particularly aggrieved against CNN and even threatened litigation against the network when they planned on airing the documentary.

The film relies heavily on studies such as Dr. David Lisak's controversial study that 8% of men commit 90% of sexual assaults on campus a statistic that is repeated multiple times throughout the film, but has come under a great deal of scrutiny as the data from the study seems flawed, according to studies in New York Magazine.  The movie glosses over entire sections of the film, such as quick look at four different Washington politicians without getting into the specifics of legislation introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand or congressional action that has taken place.  They frequently allude to the number of male victims of sexual assault, and how they are forgotten or dismissed by society because it's so rarely reported, and yet they don't have one of the men who is featured as a victim of sexual assault tell his full story like they do women or have a follow-up with any of them in the final moments of the film, thus falling guilty of their own criticism that male victims of sexual assault are frequently forgotten and stigmatized in a way that is often associated with sexuality.

I guess for me, for a film that functions less as a "you should be doing X to fix the problem" and more focuses as an expose, the film feels deeply one-sided.  This is an attack I'm uncomfortable using against a film about rape because so often the judicial system seems to be one-sided in favor of the accused in these cases, but the movie doesn't get around to finding any sort of reasoning, any sort of ground as to why universities are covering this up except anecdotal looks at greed.  Perhaps this is partially felt because of some of the subsequent behavior that has been attributed to the filmmakers since then (attacking director Kirby Dick as selectively precluding aspects of certain stories, particularly the ones levied during the Harvard testimony, or that there was alleged tampering on Wikipedia pages to make the film's stories fall more in line with testimony given by the women onscreen), but it does feel like the film is too focused on its own advocacy and less on giving more concrete examples (such as interviews with members associated with universities in order to hand down an indictment).  An interview with a State's Attorney involved with the Jameis Winston case is a step in the right direction, but even there it feels like the directors were soft-pedaling the State's Attorney.  Overall, it felt like the film was manipulating the audience with terrible, horrible stories, but the interconnecting facts were based more on emotion than on facts.

The film was nominated for one Academy Award, and here it's much easier to point out that there were clear issues with the accolades.  "Til It Happens to You" was a shock loser for the Oscar, falling to Sam Smith, but it's easy to understand why.  The song is schlocky, Diane Warren at her absolute worst, and indulgent in the way that Lady Gaga milks every single lyric with a bombast that borders on the absurd.  She can sing, sure, but the lyrics are uncomplicated and involve rather uninteresting rhyme scheme (the feel/real part of the chorus in particular felt a little eyeroll-y).  Overall, while Smith also didn't deserve the Oscar, I'll go with the unpopular opinion that he deserved it more than Gaga.

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