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No excuses

'The Hunting Ground' exposes rape culture on college campuses

Director Kirby Dick's new documentary on sexual assault, "The Hunting Ground," should be required viewing for every current and incoming college student.

The film begins with snapshots of several young women receiving their college acceptance letters or emails. They scream with excitement, some bursting into tears, surrounded by equally ebullient mothers, fathers and siblings.

The scenes are later chilling, in stark contrast with the tears shed by dozens of college students (mostly young women, but also some men) as they recount on camera how they were sexually assaulted -- and then failed by the institutions to which they reported their assaults.

"The Hunting Ground," which premiered earlier this year and is making its way to college campuses across the country through individual screenings, brings to light the complex issues driving the rising tide of student activism focused on campus sexual assault. From victim blaming, fraternity culture and the lucrative business of college sports to flawed university processes and philosophies around adjudicating reports of sexual assault, the film exposes a culture of denial and makes it clear the time has come for widespread reform.

"The Hunting Ground" will be screened at Stanford University on Tuesday, April 28, from 7 to 9 p.m. at CEMEX Auditorium. The free event will also feature a panel discussion with producer Amy Ziering, Stanford Title IX Coordinator Catherine Criswell and Angela Exson, director of Stanford's Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse (SARA) office.

Stanford is one of numerous universities that has recently come under fire for its mishandling of sexual assault, and the April 28 screening holds heightened significance. It comes soon after a university task force released a series of recommendations for how Stanford must reform its sexual-assault procedures, policies and resources. The school is also now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for Title IX investigations, and a former star freshman swimmer is due in court in Palo Alto this June for allegedly raping an unconscious woman on campus in January.

The opening scene of "The Hunting Ground" sets up a juxtaposition that continues throughout the film. It forces viewers to square the idyllic image of college as a safe, fun, nurturing place where passions are pursued and lifelong friends made with a much darker side where known rapists walk free, and students who are brave enough to report sexual assault are the ones left feeling punished.

The responsibility for this injustice doesn't lie only with perpetrators of sexual assault, the film suggests, but also with those in power who are obligated to adjudicate such situations. "The Hunting Ground" is a fierce condemnation of university presidents and administrators who appear to choose reputation and brand over doing what is right when faced with reports of serious sexual misconduct on their campuses.

The examples are numerous. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), student-activist Annie Clark said when she finally told an administrator that she had been violently raped, the administrator told her, "Rape is like a football game, Annie. If you look back on the game, what would you do differently in that situation?"

The backbone of "The Hunting Ground" is the story line of Clark and Andrea Pino, another UNC student survivor turned activist. After Pino seeks Clark's support during her freshman year, the two join forces to fight for change at their university and eventually to launch a national grassroots campaign for sexual-assault reform. Clark and Pino went on to found End Rape on Campus, now a robust survivor advocacy organization.

Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who also worked together on "The Invisible War," a 2012 documentary on the rape epidemic in the U.S. military, follow Clark and Pino on their advocacy journey from Chapel Hill to Capitol Hill. Viewers of the film listen in as Clark and Pino receive emotional Skype calls, voice mails, tweets and text messages from survivors across the country who have heard about their work and reached out for support and guidance.

Though the presidents and chancellors of many of the universities featured in "The Hunting Ground" declined to be interviewed, the film does speak to a young man who went to jail for six and a half years for sexual assault (his face is blurred out to protect his identity); to the Florida district attorney (and Florida State University alumni) who decided not to file charges against star quarterback Jameis Winston despite DNA evidence that later linked him to an assault he was accused of; to a former Dartmouth College fraternity brother and a former member of the University of Notre Dame's police department.

Some of the survivors' accounts of their assaults and universities' lackluster responses are pieced together, with women in separate interviews essentially finishing each other's sentences. The effect is powerful and profound. You watch Pino bury her head in her hands, explaining how she relives her own assault every time she hears another survivor's story,

"... but it's the only way I get up in the morning," she says. "I would have given anything to have somebody who believed me, somebody who supported me."

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, and for language. One hour, 30 minutes.

What: "The Hunting Ground" screening and panel discussion

Where: CEMEX Auditorium, 641 Knight Way, Stanford

When: Tuesday, April 28, 7-9 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to events.stanford.edu.

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