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‘Hunting Ground’ calls for action against sexual assault

Sometimes the best calls to action begin with a fermenting of moral outrage. Writer-director Kirby Dick's latest documentary, "The Hunting Ground," shows Dick has become adept at courting such outrage.

Like his previous Oscar-nominated documentaries, "Twist of Faith" and "The Invisible War," "The Hunting Ground" deals with sexual assault, but this time on college campuses.

From a narrative standpoint, the film can best be described as raw and unfettered. The survivors of sexual assault - both women and men - are given a platform to voice their lived experiences. Even more disarming for the viewer, we see their faces - the tears, the incredulousness in their eyes and the pain incurred from going through the assault. That's because the victimization was twofold: first from the perpetrator(s) and then from the school administrators unwilling to do anything about it.

Perhaps the most egregious case was Erica Kinsman's, allegedly raped by Heisman Trophy-winning Florida State quarterback, Jameis Winston, in 2012. In a heart-stopping retelling, Kinsman talks about how, after presumably being drugged by Winston, she was taken to his apartment.

"He was on top of me and I couldn't really breathe," she said of the attack, before a roommate interrupted. The roommate told Winston to stop because Kinsman was saying, "No." Even so, Winston moved Kinsman to the bathroom and locked the door, continuing the assault.

"He pushed his hand over my face and pushed my face to the floor," she said. Kinsman then recounts how the investigating officer, Scott Agulo, asked her if she was sure about going forward with the charges since Tallahassee is a "big football town."

Florida State University (FSU) and the Tallahassee Police Department, led by Agulo, did nothing for a full 10 months. When the story did come out, Kinsman was tarred and feathered for trying to take advantage of the star quarterback's success. In a chilling montage, tailgating FSU fans shower skepticism on Kinsman. One female student said with evident disdain that Kinsman was just a liar. This proves a blood-boiling moment as juxtaposed with the earlier, tearful account of Kinsman's assault.

Kinsman later dropped out of FSU. Meanwhile, Winston was drafted first overall in last Thursday's NFL draft to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Interspersed around the survivor's tales are damning statistics, not only about sexual assault on college campuses, but specifically how administrations respond. One statistic from the Washington Post cited that, in 2012, 45 percent of schools with over 1,000 students enrolled reported not one incident of a forcible sexual offense.

At first blush, that seems like a good thing. But it's hard to believe that with how often sexual assault happens on college campuses, 45 percent didn't have a single incident.

Dick's effort feels more heavy-handed and clumsy than in "The Invisible War" or "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" because there's so much jammed into the 90-minute runtime. With the focus swiveling between tales of the survivors, statistics, student athletes, the Greek system, alcohol, college administrations and so on, it's hard to pinpoint the outrage.

The documentary even presents a student rapist, but his bits of dialogue are not as powerful as Dick probably hoped. He seems more of a prop than a productive conduit for understanding sexual assault.

Overwhelming anger accompanies a viewing of this film, but that outrage is a poor moral compass. It's the catalyst for a movement, but not what carries it to the finish line.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't deal with the messiness of that outrage when applied to policy actions, but, as a platform for survivors and the turmoil they have to endure, it still serves its role well.

Empathy is when we meet moral outrage before something egregious arrives on our own shores. "The Hunting Ground," acts as a bridge to listen, understand and act.