The documentary The Hunting Ground, a searing look at the failure of American universities to grapple successfully with campus rape, has been embraced by CNN and shortlisted for next year's Oscars, while helping to sharpen the focus of college administrators.
"Colleges and universities have a real responsibility to keep their students safe. Obviously being sexually assaulted is completely a safety issue," Hunting Ground director Kirby Dick told NPR. "If approximately 1 in 5 women are being sexually assaulted, the schools are really failing in this area."
Since its debut early this year, The Hunting Ground has been cited as an inspiration for action by the White House and by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The film has also inspired a backlash — not only for its perspective but for the factual foundation on which it is based and its reporting methods.
Those concerns have continued to reverberate since the documentary's broadcast early last week on CNN, a co-producer of the film.
Florida State University's president has denounced The Hunting Ground. A group of 19 Harvard law professors wrote that it "provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student" accused in a case depicted in the film.
"The filmmakers themselves are very clear they're advocates, not journalists," said Emily Yoffe, a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine who has written extensively on campus rape. "You are getting a one-sided version. I have great concerns with the basic assumptions of the film."
Dick and his collaborator, producer Amy Ziering, agreed to speak jointly to NPR in an effort to refute the criticism.
They say much of the negative reaction stems from defenders of universities reluctant to change. And they say each incident and assertion presented in their film stands up to scrutiny.
"Schools are taking this more seriously. It's evidenced by how often they're showing this film on their campuses," Dick said in the interview. "Yes, we are seeing schools starting to move. Our concern is that if our pressure is not on them, and national attention is focused on other issues, they will slide back to a business-as-usual policy."
Aside from the controversy, the documentary has had a good fall. CNN's broadcast of the film on Nov. 22 drew an estimated 457,000 viewers. It was the most-watched programming of any in cable news that night among adults 25 to 54, considered the prime demographic.
The next day, the Producers Guild of America nominated The Hunting Ground for best documentary film. On Tuesday it landed on the official shortlist for next year's Academy Awards.
Yet Ziering and Dick are mindful of the context in which their film emerges. Last year, Rolling Stone published a cover story expose about college sexual assault but later had to retract its key anecdote — an allegation of a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there were few concrete details and no evidence. The magazine has been sued for defamation by a U.Va. administrator and also by the fraternity at the center of the allegation.
Ziering said the film arose from their work on an earlier acclaimed documentary, The Invisible War, about the toll of sexual assault on women in combat. In showing the movie on campuses around the country, Ziering said, they heard from many female college students about their own experiences being sexually assaulted.
"Schools, rather than addressing the problem, have in many, many cases covered this up," Dick said. "They have been more concerned about their reputation and fundraising."
Even some critics of The Hunting Ground acknowledge that university procedures for handling accusations of rape and sexual assault have long handled victims' concerns inadequately. Those policies started changing in earnest in 2011 under reforms promoted by the Obama administration and a series of reviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.
Some journalistic critics say the film has helped to push the pendulum too far in the other direction.
"In some ways, we are correcting one injustice by creating another injustice," Yoffe says. "Many of these procedures against the accused are unfair [and] do not offer due process. There is the presumption of guilt."
Yoffe says the reliance on studies that suggest 1 in 5 women on campus will be raped or sexually assaulted creates an unwarranted sense of panic. Yoffe contends those studies conflate far less serious and murkier interactions between young adults, often inebriated, with starker and rarer cases of assault and rape. And she said The Hunting Ground skates over major changes to campus policies as a result of governmental pressures.
In the joint interview, the filmmakers said women tend to underestimate whether they have been sexually assaulted.
Dick and Ziering also briefly addressed specific controversies they characterized as efforts to distract the public from their findings.
In one instance, producer Amy Herdy sought to secure an interview with a young woman who had accused a star Florida State quarterback of rape. In an email, Herdy wrote "this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator's side." In another email she wrote of hoping to ambush the student athlete after he refused to talk.
Noted legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr., writing in the conservative National Review, said this email proves bias — reflecting an absence of fundamental journalistic fairness.
Dick and Ziering said the email reflected a first effort, not the full reporting process. As they noted, they did ultimately seek comment from the school's star football player, whom Kinsman accused of assault. That player, Jameis Winston, now plays in the NFL and did not respond to the requests. He was not charged with a crime.
A related concern: Critics allege that the filmmakers did not seek to contact all of the men accused of attacks by the movie in a timely way. Dick and Ziering acknowledge they did not do so in all cases by the time The Hunting Ground was first shown publicly.
"When the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was actually still being made," Dick said. "That's very common for films at Sundance. We continued to make the film all the way through February. Before the film was done, we had definitely contacted all of the accused."
Added Ziering, "We would be very interested in hearing their side of the story."
None of those accused agreed to participate.
The women interviewed in the film speak directly to the camera. It would be hard to watch their accounts and not be moved. Two of them became activists whose work helped to persuade lawmakers to shift laws about sexual consent.
On CNN, anchor Alisyn Camerota told viewers the movie carried a point of view as she introduced it. After the film, she hosted an hourlong panel discussion that included Taylor, Roll Call editor Melinda Henneberger and the author Jon Krakauer, among others. Henneberger and Krakauer have written about campus sexual assaults and found the response by universities indifferent to students.
Taylor and Yoffe charge that inconvenient facts that might cut against the credibility of accusers were left on the cutting room floor. A few details were changed in the version shown by CNN because new information emerged, the producers said.
The movie depends on studies making two claims: first, that a very high proportion of women are raped or sexually assaulted during their years on campus, and second, that sexual assaulters are overwhelmingly repeat offenders.
Both contentions have received skeptical scrutiny. The libertarian magazine Reason has challenged the work of one of the scholars who serve as a touchstone for the film, the University of Massachusetts, Boston's David Lisak. He has been invoked as an authority by military officials, college campuses and media outlets, including NPR.
In an interview with Reason, Lisak acknowledged that his study concluding the prevalence of serial campus rapists drew heavily on the earlier work of a former graduate student, whose research was not specifically focused on college rapes. It was conducted on people who happened to pass by on the UMass-Boston campus, a commuter school with an older population than the stereotypical four-year college.
An analysis published in July in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics concluded that an exclusive emphasis by colleges on combating sexual predators was misguided. An accompanying editorial advised: "We should avoid any rhetoric that suggests that men at universities are likely to rape and that young women in college should be frightened of the men on their campus in general."
Dick said the overwhelming consensus of relevant studies implicates repeat offenders — and so did the filmmakers' interviews. Ziering said a significant number of the women who participated in the documentary told her they did so because they were heartbroken to learn their victimizer had assaulted other women too.
"When it comes to statistics, we have to look to the scientists and look at the discussion that's going on among scientists," Dick told NPR. "And [we should] not pay attention to people who might be pundits, because they're not researchers. We should really rely on the researchers to give us guidance."
The women, Ziering said, are heroes for sharing their stories. And the movie's defenders point to new developments. Last week, Florida State released transcripts of a deposition given by a former campus administrator who ran its victim advocate office — a resource for students who say they were sexually assaulted. She testified the university often fell short in aiding those her office was created to help.