Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lee Hirsch.
Larry Clark’s 2001 drama Bully was a provocative, disturbing and controversial film about the corrosive effects of bullying and the innate cruelty of teens towards their peers. Not to be confused with that film, Bully is fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary from filmmaker Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution In Four Part Harmony, etc), but is no less disturbing.
It explores the pervasive problem of bullying in American high schools and the effect that sustained physical and emotional abuse has on teenagers. Over 13 million kids will be bullied throughout the school year, and some 16,000 students will be absent from school because of bullies. Hirsch himself endured torments at school, so it is not surprising that he feels empathy and compassion for the victims he introduces us to here. Many of their stories are agonising and disturbing.
14 year-old Alex is tormented on a daily basis on the school bus, but he cannot tell his parents about what is happening. Hirsch’s cameras capture Alex’s torment, and the bullying became so vicious Hirsch showed the footage to both the parents and the school. But the authorities seem powerless to do anything about it. When confronted with evidence of the repeated bullying, the school’s assistant principal denies that there is a problem. “I’ve been on that bus and they are as good as gold,” she says.
Je’Maya Jackson is a 14-year-old girl from Yazoo County in Mississippi who had had enough of the repeated torments and took a gun on the bus to scare her tormentors. She was jailed on 22 counts of aggravated assault and kidnapping. It sometimes seems as though the victims are treated even more harshly than the bullies themselves. And Kelby Johnson talks candidly about her experiences of being an openly gay teen in rural America. Not only did her peers tease her, but there were some instances when her teachers joined in!
And Hirsch also visits the grieving families of two teenaged boys who committed suicide after years of being harassed and bullied and follows their efforts to spearhead a program to highlight the problem. They have created a ground swell of concerned citizens trying to stamp out this insidious practice.
Hirsch follows the various narrative strands with compassion and understanding. Hirsch spent twelve months shooting this film, embedding himself in some high schools to explore what happens to many of the weaker kids who become targets and are singled out for mistreatment. It’s a problem that is largely being swept under the rug as the authorities, clueless educators, the schools themselves, and the community at large seem powerless to stop bullying. This is evidenced when Hirsch talks to one assistant principal, who seems to be in denial.
Bully serves to heighten our awareness of this pervasive and insidious problem, which is caused by a combination of ignorance, homophobia, prejudice, and a generation of parents who have largely abrogated their parental responsibilities. This is an important film, but it is also very difficult to watch at times. However, the film doesn’t provide any solutions, nor does it explore the increasingly insidious practice of cyber-bullying. Most of Hirsch’s film seems to concentrate on smaller communities in America’s midwest and Bible belt to the exclusion of larger cities where the problem is probably even more endemic and systemic.
Bully only scratches the surface of this complex and emotionally raw subject, but it should be mandatory viewing at schools everywhere.