'Hunting Ground' Producer on Nate Parker and the Past: The Cost of Giving Up the Ghost (Guest Column)

Nate Parker and inset of Amy Ziering - Getty-H 2016
Gary Gershoff/WireImage; Angela Weiss/Getty Images for TheWrap

Amy Ziering is the producer of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary The Invisible War, about the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military, and the Oscar-shortlisted 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about the epidemic of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. The latter is nominated for a Primetime Emmy in the category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.

* * *

"My responsibility as a filmmaker, an actor, an artist and an American is to say this period in history … had an impact on all of us." —Nate Parker 

"I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope." —Nate Parker 

"I think the ghosts continued to haunt her." —"Johnny," the victim's brother 

Sorting through the recent press on Nate Parker, I was acutely struck by these three statements.  

On the one hand, Parker rightfully implores us to bear unflinching witness to slavery's pernicious, intractable and horrific legacy — while on the other, he firmly states we should decisively close the door and curtail discussion on traumatic events that are part of his personal history, events whose legacy is — while incomparably smaller in scale — also achingly sad and piercingly horrific.   

What to make of this contradiction? What can we learn from it? Who benefits from keeping certain ghosts buried while righteously exhuming others? Who suffers when we collectively agree that it is OK to give up on some of our ghosts?

Parker declares that he "will not relive" parts of his life, deciding that a certain event will or will not be part of his consciousness. Unfortunately, survivors of sexual assault don’t have the luxury of that choice.  

"It was the day my life stopped." —Valene Demos, rape survivor and subject in The Invisible War  

When we started doing research for The Invisible War, over the course of six months I spoke with close to 200 rape survivors. These were long, difficult conversations, and I took copious notes. 

I remember walking into director Kirby Dick's office one day and saying that I was struck by the peculiar language these men and women repeatedly used to describe the event. It wasn't simply a crime that had happened to them and that they had since recovered from — it was a profoundly life-altering experience from which they all had yet to recover. Even if the rape had taken place five, 10 or 20 years in the past, it was still vivid, present and haunting.  

I won’t rehash the details of what Fox Searchlight's press team antiseptically refers to as Nate Parker's "incident" (for that you can review the publicly available transcripts and articles). But I will tell you what we learned in the course of making The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground and, in doing so, look — as Parker implores us to — unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths and their legacy.

1. All well-designed national studies have confirmed that 1 in 5 women will be raped in college and in the military, yet less than 1 percent of these crimes result in a felony conviction. The absence of a conviction does not indicate the absence of guilt.

2. 92 to 98 percent of the time, when someone reports a rape they are telling the truth, as is the case with most felonies. Yet this is the only felony where the testimony is, by default, viewed as highly untrustworthy — where the victim's own actions are called into question.

3. Alcohol doesn’t rape people. Rapists do. If you are drinking and someone robs you, the robber has still committed a crime.  

4. Rapists always say the assault was consensual — if criminals admitted to their crimes, we wouldn’t need a judicial system. 

5. A large number of rape survivors suffer from PTSD — suicidal thoughts, acute anxiety, panic attacks, depression and self harm. So, if the crime lacks corroborating proof beyond a victim’s testimony, then look at the victim’s behavior post-assault and see if there are changes. These changes can be seen as evidence of that person having suffered a violent attack. 

We ask you to consider all of the above facts when you hear the oddly sterile and sanitizing PR statements like those furnished by the distributor of The Birth of a Nation: "Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."

No one wins when we whitewash history. Parker’s film eloquently testifies to this and asks us to look at the ways in which America’s history of racial injustice is not something only of the past, but toxic, alive and present. Its ghosts — mass incarceration, police brutality, gang violence, economic inequities — are its festering manifestations.

Don't we owe the same to survivors of sexual assault and their relentless ghosts? Shouldn't these crimes be examined and these stories told with same unflinching honesty and candor?

Aug. 19, 8:20 a.m. Headline updated.