The Kirby Dick-directed documentary The Hunting Ground premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews about its investigation of sexual assaults on campus, and the difficulty victims encounter when school bureaucrats try to handle disputes internally. Radius-TWC just opened it in limited release on Friday, and the docu has already created a he-said-she-said dialogue between Florida State University, the school where standout quarterback Jameis Winston, the likely top pick in the upcoming NFL draft, was accused of rape as a freshman.
The film, which was called “galvanic and compelling” in a Sundance review by our sister publication Variety, interviews the woman who accused the football star of rape. He has maintained his innocence; she is interviewed and said she dropped out of school after being ostracized for filing charges. Winston is just part of a tapestry of alarming charges made in the film, including that more than 100,000 college students will be sexually assaulted in the coming year, and that from 1996 to 2013, 259 sexual assaults were reported at Stanford and only one student was expelled.
FSU president John Thrasher is taking exception to what he is calling a one-sided treatment of how the university handled the Winston case, and he said there is no one in the film presenting the school’s side. Dick, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who previously directed The Invisible War about rape in the military, has fired right back. Below is the opening letter the FSU president issued to students, and below that is Dick’s response, supplied by the distributor.
We want to make you aware that “The Hunting Ground,” a film about campus sexual assaults that debuted in Los Angeles and New York City Thursday, is seriously lacking in credibility and presents a one-sided view of Florida State’s actions in the Jameis Winston case.
The filmmakers interviewed Erica Kinsman, but no one representing Florida State. This provides the viewing public with an incomplete and erroneous view of what the University did to investigate Ms. Kinsman’s allegations. This distorted presentation is all the more egregious in light of the fact Ms. Kinsman has filed a lawsuit against the University over the case.
The first time the University was contacted by the filmmakers was December 18 — nearly three months after they had submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival and it was scheduled for its artistic premiere. They sent a generic email asking for comment about sexual assault but failed to disclose that FSU would be a target of criticism and withheld the fact that Ms. Kinsman would be going public with her version of the story.
Had FSU been given the opportunity to reply, we would have made it clear the University went to extraordinary lengths to support Ms. Kinsman and to initiate an impartial, independent Title IX investigation of her allegations against Mr. Winston. Our efforts included arranging an independent investigation by a former Florida Supreme Court justice. He reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents and took testimony from Mr. Winston, Ms. Kinsman and 10 witnesses before ruling there was not a preponderance of evidence to support her allegations. This was not mentioned in the film, although it received ample press coverage.
Alerted to these serious omissions, FSU this week lodged a formal protest with the film’s production company, Radius-TWC, which declined to make the film available although it had already been screened in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and just last week at a student film festival.
Florida State advocates shining a bright light on the subject of sexual assault on college campuses. We want to reassure you that FSU takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously — as it did in this case — and works tirelessly through the Victim Advocate Program to support victims and help them recover. This includes informing victims about all of their options in deciding whether to initiate criminal or student conduct charges under Title IX. We remain serious about our commitment to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our students, particularly victims of sexual assault.
We also take seriously the need for journalists to observe basic ethics and standards. “The Hunting Ground” fails to meet those standards and, as a result, fails to present balanced and responsible coverage of this very important issue.
Here is the response by Dick:
“The university had months to respond to the letter we sent President Thrasher in which we wrote that our film would examine how FSU was dealing with issues they had encountered regarding sexual assault and asking how it was responding to the crisis.
This was a similar correspondence — in content and timing — that all colleges and universities featured in the film received. We didn’t get a response until last week – three days before our film opened in theaters and more than two months after we first sent the letter. Worth noting, we kept the film open until February 19th in the hopes that President Thrasher and other presidents would come forward. It’s unfortunate because we would have welcomed including President Thrasher or another FSU official in the film.
Beyond the university itself, we also contacted Jameis Winston’s attorney, the Tallahassee Police Department and Investigator Angulo. Representatives from the Tallahassee Police and Investigator Angulo declined to be interviewed. Neither Winston nor his attorney returned our multiple queries.
In addition, we interviewed a total of seven FSU sexual assault survivors whose stories contain common themes:
1) Discouragement from reporting
2) Insensitive treatment by FSU officials and police
3) Blame for their own assault
Rather than attack the messenger, President Thrasher should show leadership and focus on the problem that has existed on his campus for decades.”
Director, The Hunting Ground