May 21, 2019

Second-degree rape

When I first met the documentary filmmaker Amy Ziering two years ago, I was startled by how much the Brentwood-based mother of three reveled in the title “workaholic.” 

“I don’t care about myself,” she said, digging into a plate of egg whites at Le Pain Quotidien. “I’m not much of a glamour-seeking or publicity-seeking person. I’m a workaholic; that’s all that interests me.” 

I instantly liked Ziering’s moxie. The producer of the 2012 Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” about military sexual assault, is feisty and determined. She is obsessed by politics, ideology and intellection. And even though she tries to minimize it, she is the Beverly Hills-born-and-bred daughter of a major philanthropist and a Holocaust survivor — which both gives her confidence and makes her complicated. But she’s also very guarded; there is something impenetrable about her, and she sometimes comes off as more intellectual than emotional. 

So Ziering surprised me again when I reached her by phone last week to talk about her latest documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on university campuses. Instead of reveling in the enormous impact her work has had on policy and public discourse — she was about to screen her new film at the White House on Feb. 25 — she talked about the toll her last two films have had on her psyche.

“This year, I started taking meditation classes,” the usually indefatigable Ziering said from her hotel room in New York, where she was doing press ahead of the film’s Feb. 27 theatrical release.  

“Hunting Ground” marks Ziering’s and partner Kirby Dick’s second documentary on sexual assault, which means Ziering has spent the better part of the last five years talking to hundreds of women about their experience of rape. 

“I’ve been on sleeping pills ever since (‘The Invisible War’),” Ziering confessed. “You don’t come out the same. But it also seems sort of trivial, like, who gives a s—? Really? I’m gonna talk about my pain?” 

Just as “The Invisible War” indicts the U.S. military for its complicity in widespread sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground” offers another unflinching look at the pervasiveness of sex crimes, this time on U.S. college campuses, where, along with institutional disregard, the fraternity culture gone amok is largely to blame.

Many of our country’s most revered universities are implicated. Ziering and Dick interviewed rape survivors from nearly two-dozen college campuses — among them USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Tufts, Yale and Harvard Law School — where survivors told them staggering stories about institutional resistance to recording, reporting and prosecuting sex crimes. The silence and victim-blaming that plagued military men and women who sought justice against their perpetrators is again evident here, in the tears and stories of these women (and a few men) — most of them, barely out of their teens.

“It was startling how young these men and women were,” Ziering said, noting one difference between military victims of rape and the ones she interviewed on campus. “I wasn’t psychologically prepared for that.” 

In some ways, making “The Hunting Ground” was more emotionally challenging for Ziering, who has a college-age daughter herself. Because she is a mother, she said she often “over-identified” with her subjects. “I couldn’t help it,” she said.

One has to wonder why Ziering chose such a difficult topic for the two films. “It chose me,” she explained. “It wasn’t anticipated. We really thought we were done (after ‘The Invisible War’).” 

It was during the process of marketing “The Invisible War,” which included outreach on college campuses, that “someone would come up to one of us and say, ‘This is happening here,’ ” Ziering recalled. “And this just kept happening. And we started getting emails from kids around the country saying, ‘I was assaulted here, and they didn’t do anything.’ And after three months of this, we kinda looked at each other and said ‘Holy s—.’ We were blindsided. We felt like we couldn’t not do the movie.”

Because of the track record of “The Invisible War,” Ziering was able to quickly raise $1.8 million — more than twice the budget of the earlier film — for the campus assault project. Her investor support is so strong, she said, and the public response so encouraging, that Ziering and Dick are considering turning their sexual assault study into a trilogy. When “Hunting Ground” premiered at Sundance last January, even the usually critical New York Times noted that the festival’s puffy promo of the film as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses” may have “undersold it.”

Although Ziering would not reveal the locus of the potential final installment, hints inside “The Hunting Ground” suggest she may next turn her scorching lens on the sports industry. Jameis Winston, Florida State University quarterback and winner of the 2013 Heisman Trophy figures prominently in “The Hunting Ground” — and not in a good way. Winston was accused of rape in 2012, and after a botched — some say negligent — police investigation, he was cleared of all charges. 

“Rape is like a football game,” one survivor recounts a campus administrator telling her when she tried to report the crime. “What would you have done differently?”

Just watching these survivors tell their stories is deeply disturbing and painful. So it’s no wonder that Ziering, who has been living and breathing this topic for years, doesn’t sleep well. Part of the message she hopes to communicate through her work is that rape doesn’t only happen to one person — it shatters families, friends and whole communities.  

“If I’m in this pain, and I’m fine — I have no first-degree trauma,” she said, “Oh my God. Just imagine what this is doing not only to survivors, but to their loved ones and everyone they come into contact with. And how does it really tear up and warp our whole society?”