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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

College Horror

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday March 19, 04:51 pm
Rape culture in U.S. schools is both epidemic and systemic

 THE HUNTING GROUND

Broadway (opens Saturday 21)

The numbers surrounding sexual offences on American college campuses are staggering. One in five female college and university students are assaulted every year — and only five percent of attacks are reported. Yet in 2012, 40 percent of colleges reported no rapes.

The lack of punishment is also scandalous — including one-day suspensions, writing a book report, community service (at a rape crisis centre, of all places) and “expulsion” post-graduation.

Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick (This Movie Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War) tackles the subject in The Hunting Ground. Through two survivors who created an outreach organization and countless testimonies (although only one college dean), Dick makes it clear the culture of rape in universities is often enabled by the institutions themselves, an attitude linked to their financial wellbeing.

Planet S caught up with the two-time Academy Award nominee in Toronto earlier this month. Dick’s approach to documentary filmmaking is almost scholarly, and it’s been proven effective: The Invisible War triggered a change in military policy that saw the prosecution of sexual assault cases was taken away from unit commanders.

Based on what you learned while making this documentary, is there a silver bullet that would help to improve the issue significantly?

There are reforms that could be instituted right away. The most important thing is to expel rapists. Schools have to make this issue a top priority and back it up with funding. The money needs to go into their investigative and judicative process so, when somebody comes forward, there will be a system robust enough to find who’s responsible. This will also protect people who are falsely accused, because the system would be experienced in evaluating these cases.

The other thing that needs to be done is to have schools assert the extent of the problem. The only way they can do that is by having anonymous surveys of their students and asking what the prevalence of sexual assault is, how comfortable they feel with reporting and how they feel the school is handling these reports. This information needs to be made public, because if you’re not transparent, you won’t solve the problem. Finally, university presidents have to come forward, admit they have a serious problem — because all schools do — and announce they’ll be personally responsible for addressing this issue.

This will give survivors a great deal of faith in the system and you’ll have many more coming forward.

Yet the first reaction to your documentary was Florida State University president John Thrasher attacking the film’s credibility.

No one at these colleges wants a sexual assault to occur on their campuses, and many people in the administration are actively trying to improve the situation, but leadership has to come from the top. Thrasher is making the problem worse — if he’s coming after a film by Academy-Award-nominated filmmakers, imagine how a survivor on that campus feels about coming forward. Rather than attacking the messenger, he should be assuming responsibility and taking proactive steps to solve it.

You triggered a change in public policy by showing The Invisible War to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Do you have a plan to expose colleges to The Hunting Ground?

We had a number of presidents reach out about programming [after seeing] the film or meet with us personally to discuss the issue. The film is scheduled to play in at least 70 schools, and we’ve had more than a thousand inquiries. That’s very positive. We saw it with the military: they began to use The Invisible War as part of their sexual assault training program. I’ve spoken with many people in the armed forces over the last year who have told me our movie made a huge difference. We hope this film will have the same impact in campuses, and that college presidents respond in the same way the U.S. military did when they received the critique. This is a critique, not an attack.

As a filmmaker, do you set up yourself to trigger change or is it a byproduct of the stories you choose to tell?

One of the things I think is most important about making good art is a willingness to take risks. To make a powerful film is difficult; likewise, it’s hard to make a movie that makes a social impact. To do both at the same time is extremely ambitious. I see them as part of the same artistic project. It’s like keeping a lot of balls in the air: you just have two more balls that you’re working with.

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