Emma Sulkowicz and 'The Hunting Ground' of Campus Sexual Assault

In 2012, Amy Ziering’s documentary “The Invisible War” uncovered the epidemic of sexual assaults in the United States military, which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

Earlier this year, Ziering along with longtime collaborator Kirby Dick released “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary that examines sexual assaults on college campuses. Through a series of stirring interviews with male and female students who claimed they were raped at school, the film explores a culture that the filmmakers believe has enabled widespread mishandling of sex crimes at America’s top universities.

We spoke with Ziering about the growing spotlight on college sexual assaults with the recent cases involving college quarterback Jameis Winston and Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, the influence of her father, Sigi, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote the play “The Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff,” and the stress induced by reporting on traumatic subjects.

Seth Berkman: Were people reluctant to participate in the film?

Amy Ziering: Yes and no. There was no shortage of people who can talk about this happening to them. They just have these really heartbreaking stories that was the sad part. Honestly, every story in the film—even the ones you see just briefly—they could’ve carried feature films. In terms of people feeling comfortable and safe moving forward, obviously it’s not an easy thing to talk about in public. That was just sort of a decision each person had to come to by themselves. We absolutely said there was no pressure ever on our part. I never wanted anything we’re doing to add to your pain or trauma.

When talking about sexual assault on campus, do you think there are waves where it becomes prominent and then it gets swept under the rug?

There’s been a resurgence thanks to the student movement, which has sort of made it national news for the last 20 months. That’s been kind of incredible. My deepest hope really is we’re at a watershed moment, things will change, to make it so you can feel safe reporting and coming forward just like any other crime in our society. I think actually we’ve had a different shift with campus rape. People are seeing it as more systemic and I think that’s a really big difference.

What was the most shocking moment during reporting?

I wish there was just one. There were so many shocking things. I could never get my head around administrators’ responses. I thought the fact that whenever we asked the advocates, “What school was doing it right?” they’d just stare at us and blink, like there wasn’t any sort of shining example that we could point to or champion in our film as a university that was not only talking the talk, but walking the walk in a really sincere way we could look to and model.

Do you think politicians are seriously tackling this issue?

I’ve never seen anything like it honestly. Especially the Obama administration. That they started the “It’s On Us” campaign. That Obama spoke out publicly about this issue, I didn’t think I’d ever see that in my lifetime. It’s completely legit. We had a meeting a couple of years ago when we were just starting out the film with Senator Gillibrand and she just really wanted to find out everything we knew, what we learned on the ground, brainstorm solutions. I’m just overwhelmingly impressed. All the senators I’ve spoken with and engaged with on this issue, they’re really grappling with it.

There’s no easy answer. They’re taking it on with a lot of sincerity and a real strong desire to change. I don’t think anything’s cosmetic. It actually gives more hope. I can be cynical about most things, but the work I’ve been seeing going on around this issue, the Obama administration and the bipartisan Senate, has been incredible.

Were there reservations taking on sexual assault again after making “The Invisible War?”

Yeah, there were deep reservations and it was not really our intention. It’s very challenging to make a film in the same wheelhouse and not feel like you’re repeating yourself and also the emotional toll this kind of work takes. But what really honestly happened was we were working on something else and we went around and showed “The Invisible War” and every time we screened “The Invisible War” on a campus somebody would come up to us and say, “You know, this happened to me here and there’s a lot of similarities to what you’re pointing out.” We started getting letters in our inbox. After about three months we looked at each other and we felt obligated. We said we can’t not make this film. We owe it to the cause and these people.

Your father was a Holocaust survivor. Did you feel drawn to stories of trauma growing up?

Yeah, but again I think it was unconscious. I also think it’s just who we are. My axes of thinking are always around social injustice, politics and trauma. So I definitely think it informed who I am. Now in retrospect I can look back and connect the dots and make those links, but it wasn’t really in my conscience, like I’m gonna be interested in trauma because of my traumatic past. I always did political things.

Is there any kind of weight lifted after finishing a project like this?

We get super invested and committed. “Invisible War,” for two years we really pushed the Military Justice Improvement Act, that’s a bill we were trying to get passed in the Senate. Same with this. This film has had such an explosive impact already and we have over 2,000 screening requests from campuses around the country, in just like two months. The responses we’re getting and the people coming forward with ideas, I think we’re gonna be pretty committed for at least the next year or so. So what ways we can leverage it and try and have a lasting and meaningful impact?

Did your father’s work as a playwright have influence on entering filmmaking?

No, he wasn’t really a playwright, he just happened to write a play when I was 16. That was his way of telling us about the Holocaust because he never really spoke about it, so he just wrote a play. He was a businessman. We were not an artsy family.

I read it. There was no thought of having it produced. He just wrote it I think for his family. The impact when I read it — oh God, it was horrible. It was very wrenching. It was about a child watching his mom in the selection line. He wrote a second play and that I did see, that was many years later.

There have been articles written by Emily Yoffe and Cathy Young bringing another voice to the conversation of sexual assault on campus. Does that drive the conversation because it brings another view? Does it hurt?

I think there’s always gonna be people who want to make something horrible go away. I just wish those articles and analyses were better informed. Do your homework.The real issue is these crimes are happening at epidemic rates and the false reporting of sexual assault is exactly the same as any other crime and we don’t read Emily and others writing about their suspicions about false burglary claims or carjacking claims or robberies or battery allegations. It’s not statistically anomalous. 92 to 98 percent of people who report rape are telling the truth. That’s where our outrage should be. Less than 2% of criminals who commit these crimes ever see any kind of punishment. Those are the alarming statistics. There’s no debate. There’s a truth, these crimes are happening and they’re not being properly investigated. That’s what we should be talking about and worrying about.

What changes have you seen since you began making “The Hunting Ground?”

Sort of like “Invisible War,” before we made that film, that was just not in the consciousness that there were rapes happening in the military. Now that’s sort of base-level, common knowledge. Likewise with campus assaults. I think that’s a total shift, acknowledgement and recognition. With our film, we’re hoping to finally give people a really in depth and close up understanding and analysis of the issue. I think we’re adding a new dimension to it and it’s just gonna propel and expand the conversation and the activism. There’s a long way to go but I think we’re in a really great place and poised to see a remarkable cultural shift if we all keep going.

This article has been edited for style and length.

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