"The Hunting Ground" filmmakers on why sexual assault is treated differently from other crimes: “Were you drunk when you claim the television was stolen?”

Salon talks to "The Hunting Ground's" Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick about their polarizing documentary

Published November 22, 2015 10:00PM (EST)

"The Hunting Ground"      (Radius)
"The Hunting Ground" (Radius)

"The Hunting Ground" has become a prominent part of the national conversation on campus sexual assault since it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January, with nearly 1,000 screenings at schools around the country, one at the White House, and an upcoming broadcast on CNN this Sunday, Nov. 22 at 8:00 pm ET. Documenting cases throughout U.S. colleges through interviews with survivors, administrators and police and highlighting the efforts of student activists, the film gives faces and voices to a phenomenon that is too often a source of political debate divorced from the lives it touches.

Like the issue of campus assault itself, “The Hunting Ground” has stirred up nationwide controversy. In June, Slate columnist Emily Yoffe wrote that one case the film presents — Kamilah Willingham and a friend's alleged sexual assault at the hands of Harvard Law School classmate Brandon Winston — was a "spontaneous, drunken encounter" and that resulted in Winston being "found guilty of a single count of misdemeanor nonsexual touching." In concurrence, 19 Harvard Law School professors wrote a letter protesting the film's portrayal of Winston, pointing out that he was never found guilty of sexual assault.

Harvard’s initial sanction of dismissal on Winston was indeed overturned, through an appeal process that violated Title IX. Before the appeal, the Harvard Law Administrative Board had found Winston guilty of sexual misconduct with two women who were incapable of consenting. He was then found guilty by a jury in criminal court of only one count of non-sexual assault.

The dispute over Winston’s guilt illustrates a paradox many anti-sexual-assault activists face: The government and university adjudication systems they’re expected to draw evidence from are also often the objects of their criticism.

Another target of scrutiny from the media was interview subject Erica Kinsman’s account of rape at the hands of Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston. Stuart Taylor Jr. wrote in the National Review that Kinsman’s story was inconsistent and her evidence was dubious. The filmmakers document on “The Hunting Ground’s" website that despite a delayed and incomplete investigation, Kinsman’s medical records document bruises after the incident, the DNA found on her clothes after the rape was Winston’s, and Winston himself never described receiving verbal consent.

On Friday, after this interview was conducted, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Jameis Winston has threatened to sue CNN if they go ahead and air the film today:

"We are writing to formally caution CNN that the portions of the film 'The Hunting Ground' pertaining to Mr. Winston are false and defamatory to Mr. Winston," states a letter to CNN's Jeff Zucker, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. "We urge CNN to reconsider the reckless decision to proceed with the broadcast of this deeply-flawed documentary in the face of the overwhelming evidence the film's producers consciously and intentionally failed to adhere to any accepted journalistic standards."

Salon spoke with the documentary’s director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, also the creators of the award-winning film “The Invisible War,” last week. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

First of all, what inspired you to create a film centered on this issue?

Ziering: We had finished “The Invisible War,” which broke the story of the epidemic of rape in our military, and in the course of doing campus screenings, students would come up to us and tell us that something extremely similar was happening on their campuses. There were a lot of analogies to what we pointed out in the military. Then, we started to get letters in our inboxes from students around the country telling us their stories and asking us to make a film. So, even though we were making a different film for HBO at the time, we jumped in and started investigating. We found that what we were hearing anecdotally was not only true but that the problem was even more widespread and extensive, so we felt compelled to dive in and make a film about it.

Former Harvard Assistant Dean of Student Life Susan Marine says in the documentary that “sexual violence has always been part of the college experience.” Why do you think that is? 

Ziering: What we've seen and learned in studying this issue is that certain environments present perfect storm conditions. Campuses are unique environments. There’s a young, transient population so there's a lot of opportunity, obviously. And there are poor mechanisms in place to investigate and adjudicate these crimes. So, combining these things, campuses are highly conducive to allowing these types of crimes to occur with great rapidity and frequency. That’s what we saw.

Dick: And I think also the reason that it's such a problem on college campuses is that the schools have known about this, or at least many people within the administrations of these schools have known about this, and they have looked the other way. They have not taken steps to really address the problem. In fact — we've seen this over and over again with these institutions — they've been more concerned with their reputations and their fundraising than they have been with the safety of their students.

Do you think the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is a particularly American phenomenon?

Dick: Certainly, we know that it's a problem in Australia, we know that it's a problem in Canada, and we know it's a problem in the United Kingdom. There are statistics in the UK that say about one in seven women are sexually assaulted on their campus. The figures here are around one in five. It seems to be a problem, perhaps not quite as bad, because other countries don’t have the same kinds of sports programs in their schools and don’t have many fraternities, and we know that some fraternities and some sports programs are hot spots in the United States for sexual assault.

Ziering: But even if you eliminate fraternities and sports from colleges in the United States, it’s still a big problem.

Do you think campus assault has become more common over the years or simply that awareness has increased?

Dick: In the United States, there has been more awareness, fortunately. The one-in-five statistic, sadly, has been fairly consistent over the last 30 years. In nearly every national study, approximately one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. There's one outlier study called the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) that comes in much lower that critics of the film often cite, but the fact is that that study has been thoroughly critiqued by a 278-page report from the National Academy of Sciences that says the NCVS study should not be used to actively determine prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

I remember seeing that study cited in a National Review article criticizing “The Hunting Ground.

Dick: Right. To begin with, it's been very well established that approximately one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Now, the critics of this one-in-five statistic, who are neither scientists nor sexual assault experts, are definitively and confidently proclaiming that this one-in-five figure is inflated. This is very similar to what we've seen around the issue of climate change and the climate change denial movement. The statistics all substantiate the fact that the Earth is getting warmer, but people, even in the face of those statistics, continue to deny it and obviously, it’s very serious. We're seeing the same thing happen around the statistics of sexual assault on college campuses.

Why are people so invested in denying the campus sexual assault epidemic?

Dick: There are many reasons. To begin with, it’s too disturbing a topic, and people tend to look away from the issue rather than confront the issue head-on. Another reason is that survivors are silent because they're so often attacked and they're so often questioned if they do report. The critics who question the statistics and attack survivors end up discouraging survivors from coming forward, and then this country isn't aware of how extensive these problems are. What we saw with our film, when we took it around to college campuses, was that when people began talking after the film, person after person would come forward and say, "I was assaulted. This happened to me. This happened to me on this campus. This happened to me 30 or 40 years ago." When you sit down and talk to people, you realize how expansive this problem is.

The National Review article claimed that Erica Kinsman wasn't a credible victim. How would you respond to that accusation?

Dick: That article was so full of misleading statements and falsehoods and so riddled with errors that the article itself has very little credibility. Erica Kinsman has spoken on the record four or five times, and her story has been remarkably consistent. The National Review article is an extremely biased, poorly written article full of misrepresentations and outright falsehoods.

[Stuart Taylor Jr., the author of the National Review article, responds: “As I imagine you've noticed, Mr. Dick just fulminates without even attempting to identify a single (to borrow his words) misleading statement, falsehood (a word repeated twice in his two-sentence fusillade), error, example of bias, misrepresentation, or any other journalistic sin in anything I wrote about the film or the case. Mr. Dick also claimed to Ms. Weiss that Erica Kinsman has been "remarkably consistent" -- without bothering to refute the demonstration to the contrary in my National Review article, and the more detailed demonstration in my longer Real Clear Politics article critiquing the coverage of the case by the New York Times. The Times, by the way, never even attempted to claim that I made a single error or misleading statement or omission.]

You've also faced accusations that you didn't portray Kamilah Willingham's case objectively. What are Emily Yoffe and the Harvard professors who objected to the film's portrayal of that case getting wrong?

Ziering: We have something up on our website that refutes [the Harvard professors’] allegations point by point.

Dick: Another aspect that's shocking about the Harvard Law professors' statement is they make no mention at all of the fact that these assaults have been going on on their campus for decades. In fact, an Association of American Universities study recently came out that showed approximately 30 percent of women are sexually assaulted at Harvard.

Ziering: They're claiming they're speaking on the side of justice, and yet where's the justice for all these women who have experienced a felony on their campus? I also just want to say their letter came out right before our CNN airing. Our film has been out since January, and so one wonders, if they were so concerned about injustice, wouldn’t they have gotten in touch with the public or us a little sooner and asked us about what they claim are our inaccuracies? The film has withstood thorough and extensive vetting and there's been no challenge to it, and it's about to show now on CNN, and suddenly they are expressing concern?

Dick: Right. The Harvard Law professors haven’t written a letter asking us to retract anything specific in the film. That's because, factually, this film is correct.

They also never mentioned the fact that an independent investigator and Harvard’s Administrative Board found Kamilah credible and her accused not credible, and found that he had sexually assaulted Kamilah and her friend. The Harvard Law Administrative Board found him not credible and Kamilah credible, and found him responsible for sexual assault. The prosecutor recommended charges of sexual assault against him. The grand jury indicted him with two counts of sexual assault. There are many, many people who have looked at the evidence and felt the case was very strong and that the accused had committed sexual assault. There was only one body at Harvard that overturned the Harvard Law Administrative Board's finding, and these professors were part of that body. But the flawed process that body used was critiqued and investigated by the Department of Education. So, in many ways, their statement is an act of self-interest and an attempt to protect their reputation because of their involvement in a flawed process.

Ziering: And Emily Yoffe's primary source for what she presents as facts in her piece is the defense lawyer for the accused — the person who is paid by someone to make up a story that gets them out of trouble. And this lawyer’s spin is being put forward as a credible and unimpeachable source. I don't get paid by anyone to make up things.

[Note: In her article Yoffe cites, at length, court documents that include testimony from both Kamilah and Winston, and spoke to two jurors on the case who declined to be identified. As noted in her article, the district attorney’s office declined to make the prosecutor of Winston’s case available for an interview.]

Also, if we just take a step back and look at what we're all talking about, what is the gain for all these women to come forward and just make things up? Just think about it for a minute. Kamilah had no idea we were going to make a movie, so what's in it for her to go through a rape kit, a police report, all the things one has to do, and hours of testimony and all that, why?

Do we have this kind of hysteria and doubting about reports of other crimes in our society? We don’t, and we really have to look at that because the likelihood that someone is lying about rape is statistically identical to the likelihood that someone is lying about any other crime in our society. Yet you don’t ever hear someone say: “Are you sure you didn’t mean to give him the television set?” Or: “Were you drunk when you claim the television was stolen?”

One of the reasons people give for doubting sexual assault victims’ accounts is that there’s sometimes an absence of evidence or witnesses. What’s the best way to handle cases that are purely “he said, she said”?

Dick: Well, there often is evidence — testimony is evidence. People are very often convicted in court primarily on testimony. But it is true that these are difficult crimes to investigate. We recommend that schools professionalize their investigative and adjudicative process so that, if someone is sexually assaulted, there'll be a more robust system in place to find them responsible, and if appropriate, have them expelled. And in the rare cases of false reports of sexual assault, the person falsely accused will be better protected by that same system. Right now, schools have not taken this anywhere near as seriously as they should, and so, in many cases, their investigative and adjudicative processes are really not adequate. That is beginning to change, and so we're hopeful.

Ziering: And I want to point out that all crimes are “he said, she said.” It's very rare that the perpetrator says, "Hey, I did it." And again, let's look at how we filter or understand this. Studies show that 92-98 percent of the time, when someone reports a rape, it's true. That's consistent with any other crime in our society, and yet this is the only crime that people think is confusing, murky and “he said, she said,” and studies actually show it's not.

I think that's the story we really need to start seeing in the media. Unfortunately, the media is prey to the same cultural myths and biases, and we're hoping that the film helps to reframe and reposition these crimes so they can really start being addressed. It's a pernicious, pervasive problem that's been misunderstood for decades, and we really need to step up our game, rethink it, and figure out how to do something better about it. And just help people. That's where our interests should be: Let's help all the victims of this. Let's acknowledge they exist. Let's do right by them. Right now, we're just really damaging everybody. Again, I don't have any need or reason to run around talking about something fake. I wish this were not a problem. But it is, so let’s focus our energies on dealing with it instead of attacking the victims and the messengers.

We wish our campus leaders would follow the example of the Pentagon. After “Invisible War,” they responded by saying, “We acknowledge this is a problem and we’re going to try and do better.” Great — let's do the same on our campuses. Let's do better. Let's not carry the water for the P.R. firms of a few institutions that are trying to protect their reputation by casting doubt about the issue and our film. It's more than a little ironic that the film is about schools doing the wrong thing to protect their reputations and now again they're attacking the messenger to protect their reputations.

What other myths about sexual assault do you think are most in need of debunking?

Dick: That there's a high number of false reports. That's not true. Studies show that only 2-8 percent of sexual assault reports are false, which means the vast majority of these reports are true. Another myth is that women are somehow responsible for their assault, and therefore it is harder to assign blame and the crime is less serious. We never place that kind of responsibility or blame on the victim of any other kind of crime. And if this country continues to put forth this mythology that somehow survivors are responsible, these survivors are not going to report because they're going to feel ashamed and blamed. And if they don't report, that means their perpetrator goes free, and, since it's very likely that that perpetrator is a repeat offender, that perpetrator will be free to assault again and again.

study on three Canadian campuses published earlier this year found that teaching women strategies to avoid rape lowered their chances of being sexually assaulted. Can we educate students on how to protect their safety without holding victims responsible? 

Ziering: There's value to all sorts of different ways to approach this issue, but one does have to be careful about solutions that really put it all on the victim because that supports all the biases and suppositions about this crime, and I would like to see this crime treated just like any other crime. One of the things we're trying to do with our film is to put the focus on the predator.

What are some other ways we could prevent campus sexual assault?

Dick: One of the things that certainly would help is if we taught students about consent. Obviously, this would teach men that rape and sexual assault are wrong. It would teach men and women how to discuss issues of consent around sexuality. I think if that kind of education was institutionalized around the country, over time you would see a change in the way men viewed women. And this shift in attitudes would make it harder for repeat offenders to commit and get away with sexual assault.

I would also like to see college presidents step forward and publicly talk about this. Not just to their students, but to their alumni and to the entire country, saying that this is an issue of primary importance on this campus and they want to be held accountable for their efforts to address the problem. That would send a message to men on that campus that there will be consequences to assaulting a fellow student and to women and men that are assaulted that they will be supported if they report a sexual assault.

Are there any legal changes you’d like to see on a national level?

Dick: Legislatively, I think the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which is a bipartisan bill in the Senate, is a very good bill and we certainly support that. Just as there are issues with the attitudes of many college administrations toward sexual assault, there are problems within the criminal justice system. Many police departments, many prosecutors and even many judges have similar misguided attitudes, and I think there should be a real effort to apply best practices throughout the entire criminal justice system when it comes to sexual assault.

Did anything surprise either of you in the process of creating the film?

Ziering: Everything surprised me. I'm surprised by where we are now and the conversations we're having. I’m surprised as a mother of three that this is going on in the way it’s going on.

Dick: On the plus side, we were really surprised and pleased by the activism of students like Annie Clark and Andrea Pino and others whose work and commitment to their cause has put this issue on the national agenda. Everyone in this country owes a real debt of gratitude to all the activists and all the survivors who were and are part of this movement. I was also surprised by how strongly and forcefully President Obama spoke out about this and how committed Vice President Biden has been to this issue. This administration has made addressing sexual assault a major priority and continues to be very proactive in compelling colleges and universities to make long-overdue changes to protect their students on their campuses.

There’s one last thing I’d like to add. It's important for people to realize this film is not anti-men. Most men are horrified by sexual assault. Most athletes and most fraternity members are horrified by it as well. These assaults are caused by a small number of perpetrators, most of whom are repeat offenders. This is not just a women's issue. Men are an important part of the solution, and this is something that we as a society, men and women together, should take on and really work to reduce and eliminate as much as possible.

By Suzannah Weiss

MORE FROM Suzannah Weiss

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Amy Ziering Campus Rape Crisis Cnn Documentary Film Kirby Dick Rape Culture The Hunting Ground