After Suffering PTSD, Amy Ziering Returns to The Hunting Ground with Kirby Dick

She patiently listened to the details, time and time again, that sounded too eerily similar.

A few sordid, graphic and incomprehensible stories of violent rape in the military soon became dozens, and then more than a hundred. More often than not, these were tragedies not just of sexual assault, but of the profound violation that occurs when apparent bonds of friendship and trust are revealed as gross, ugly manipulation.

For filmmaker Amy Ziering, a mother of three girls, the making of 2012’s An Invisible War became the ultimate nightmare job that you just can’t leave at work.

“I started having anxiety that I never had before,” said Ziering. “I was super-anxious in my motel room. I was wondering if the doors were locked. I couldn’t sleep. I was worried that I was on the first floor; I noticed there was a parking lot. And none of those thoughts ever would have ever crossed my mind [otherwise]. I grew up in a house where we didn’t use a key to lock the door.”

She soon realized she was suffering from the very same post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that had afflicted many of her interviewees.

“I mean, it’s extremely tasking in ways I had no understanding or anticipation of, and I have a lot more empathy and respect for social workers and therapists and people who deal with trauma survivors,” said Ziering, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her efforts. “You don’t walk away the same person you were when you started.”

Yet in Ziering’s case, you don’t walk away from the cause, either. Three years after The Invisible War shook the Pentagon to its core, she and collaborator Kirby Dick are back this week with the theatrical premiere of The Hunting Ground. The documentary is focused on the perhaps even more profound notion that approximately one in five of American daughters are raped—on or around campus—after we send them off to the college of their dreams.

One in five. And not just at any college—not just the ones with reputations as “party schools”—but revered institutions like Notre Dame, Harvard, Yale, USC, Carnegie Mellon, and on and on. No college, claim the filmmakers, is immune to the problem.

At the core of the drama for the new film is the most ugly thesis of all: Rather than aid the victims, the university administrators most often turn against them, just as the military expatriated victims of sexual assault in The Invisible War.

MovieMaker caught up with both Ziering and Dick, a two-time Academy Award nominee, to explore what lured them both back to cover, if you will, the same ground all over again.

Photograph by Nathaniel Langston Palmer

Photograph by Nathaniel Langston Palmer

MM: How is this new film different than the military film, or is it “Physical Atrocities Part 2?”

Kirby Dick (KD): As Amy and I took The Invisible War around to colleges and universities, we kept getting questions about—in the discussions that would follow—sexual assault on college campuses, and about sexual assault on that specific campus. And we’d come back from these trips and we’d compare notes, and we’d say, “This seems to be a really hot topic on these campuses.” And then we started getting emails and letters from survivors and other people saying, “Please, this is an important issue. Make a film on this subject.” So in some ways we thought there was a possibility that it was going to be a sequel, but I have to say this was much more complex than in the military in many ways. It was more shocking, because you just didn’t expect these really esteemed institutions, that otherwise might be championing social justice issues, to really just mishandle—and often times deliberately mishandle—these reports of sexual assaults, over and over and over. And it was school after school after school where this was happening. And we very quickly realized that we could randomly choose a school anyplace in the country and probably make a feature film about the [sexual assault] problems of that school.

MM: I have to ask: how do you deal with the legal issues of a subject like this?

KD: Well, in comparison with all my other films, this was the most challenging in terms of legal exposure. We were dealing with many, many very powerful institutions. And like any institution, reputation is all-important. So we had to be very careful, particularly in the fact-checking stage, to make sure that everything was 100 percent accurate. There were a lot of questions about shooting [the movie] on campus, and a variety of other things, so we worked very closely with two legal firms to make sure that we had that entire issue covered.

MM: Amy, where did your emotional empathy come from during the interviews? As you said, you suffered PTSD yourself [during and after the first movie]. You got some to incredibly intimate places with so many people. What gave you the ability to do that so effectively?

Amy Ziering (AZ): I don’t really know. I think there are two things. I think I’ve always been just a very good listener and a good interviewer, and I always establish trust with these types of interview subjects. The first thing I say is, “We’re here, but it’s super important to me that your emotional health comes first. So even though we’re here, we showed up, or you flew here, if anything I ask you don’t want to answer, it’s totally fine. I want you to feel protected and safe.” And I think that helps establish that comfort zone.

MM: For both of you.

AZ: I remember with Invisible War, there was a Q&A at Sundance and one of the lead subjects said that halfway through our first interview she had broken down, and we stopped the interview, and I asked if she wanted to keep going. She said she didn’t know. And I held her, and I said, “It’s OK. You’re safe here. No one’s going to hurt you.” And she said at Sundance, to the reporter, that no one had ever offered her sympathy before, or given her that sense of support before. And so I think that was just how I approached it, and I think that helped set the tone. And then you asked where it came from in me. I don’t really know. My dad was a Holocaust survivor who could never speak of his trauma for a lot of complex, psychological reasons. And I think growing up in that kind of household, with that kind of trauma in our background forming our daily lives, maybe helped me be much more sensitive.

Andrea Pino, a subject in The Hunting Ground

Andrea Pino, a subject in The Hunting Ground

MM: I hear both of your voices in your movies at various times in the interviews. How does that collaborative process work for you?

AZ: I think we’re really, really complementary. I didn’t think I would ever find such a great interview collaboration. We have different strengths, but we’re also totally on the same page analytically, and when we do early reads, it’s interesting. So he might sit through my interviews. And then it’s like a tag team. I do the first round, usually more often then not. And then he would lead, if appropriate and necessary, on others. And it’s nice. It’s super-smart to do. I recommended it for people, because it breaks up the rhythm and pace, it gives your subjects a chance to interact with someone differently. It gives you the chance, for certain people, to ask questions a second time, and they don’t mind it as much, because it’s coming from someone else, and you just want to get a different run at something. I love that part of our working relationship. I think it’s reflected in the strength of our interviews in the film.

MM: How do you get underwriting and stay solvent making films like this, that aren’t automatic slam-dunk sellouts in the theater?

KD: Well, for films that are powerful that deal with important social issues and social problems, and deal with them in a powerful way, I actually think there is somewhat of a long tail to that. All my last three films—This Film is Not Yet Rated, Outrage, and Invisible War, which were all taking on institutions—the distributors did not get rich off of them, but they did break even and turn a profit. And those films were nominated for Academy Awards or won prizes, and that also goes to the benefit of the distributors. So it’s not like the films are not making money for distributors. They’re not making a lot, but if you’re a filmmaker who makes films that are highly regarded, distributors and funders want to work with that kind of filmmaker.

MM: It’s tough.

KD: Absolutely. From my perspective, making a documentary is, in some ways, one of the most labor-intensive art forms there is. But in order to make a really good documentary, you just have to work your ass off. Years, two years or more, and really every single thing in that film you have to make sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it. And if you get it to that level, I think audiences respond, and distributors respond. Again, you’re not going to get rich, they’re not going to get rich, but you’re able to fund your next film. And that’s obviously the first and most important thing, if you want to make a film that’s a really powerful film that’s about social justice issues that has an impact on the issue, but you also want to set yourself up to get enough funding, at least a modest amount of funding, to make your next film.

MM: Does it get any easier?

KD: It’s never easy. With Invisible War, we knew we had a topic that was extremely explosive. And I’ve made nine feature documentaries, I’ve been nominated for Academy Awards, and we could not get money for that film. We were just shocked; we were funding it ourselves. Then fortunately we got some great executive producers, who gave us money, but it’s never easy. If you’re a filmmaker who deals with difficult issues, you can never count on getting full funding. You oftentimes have to go into the film with the attitude that you’re going to start making the film, and the quality of the material that you’re going to generate is going to allow you to bring in the rest of the funding.

MM: The Hunting Ground premiere is this week. What’s next?

KD: The Invisible War had an incredible impact on the issue [of rape in the military]. And we hope that this film at least approaches what The Invisible War did. We’ve already had five or six hundred inquiries from college campuses to show the film on campuses. We showed The Invisible War on hundreds and hundreds of college campuses, and we might get to a thousand with this film. And every time this film goes on a campus, there are going to be survivors and activists who are going to see this, and administrators too who will see this. That’s going to change the way they see things, that’s going to generate activism on campus, and that’s going to generate reform campus by campus. And then, you know, just getting this film out to the public is huge. Obviously this issue has been in the news for the last year or so, but a documentary can take it to an entirely new level. MM

The Hunting Ground opens in limited theaters February 27, 2015, courtesy of RADiUS and CNN Films.

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