by GREG KING
Bully is fascinating and disturbing fly-on-the-wall documentary from filmmaker Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution In Four Part Harmony, etc). It is an important film that 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.
“It struck me that there had never been a film about bullying,” Hirsch offers. “Yet it’s such a common denominator that we can all connect to – whether we have been bullied or have been witness to it, or have been a bully. And I just thought that it was something that was needed that would do a lot of good, and give people going through it some insight.”
In his extensive research for the film, Hirsch talked to experts. He learned how to change school climates, culture and things like emotional learning. It was a huge learning curve, trying to wrap his head around all of the issues because it is such a huge and complicated problem with no easy solution.
“But probably the best research I did was getting bullied myself and just really remembering that landscape of going through it, and how difficult it was to communicate about it,” he admits. “It really struck me that people going through this really want to talk about it, I think because they feel so marginalised to give them an opportunity to express what is happening is really empowering. So my experience was that kids are really appreciative and wanted to participate in it.”
Because Hirsch himself was bullied at school, it is not surprising that he feels empathy and compassion for the victims he introduces us to here. “All of the amazing kids in the film I thought of them as partners and not as just characters. I really wanted them to choose to be in the film, and that was pretty integral.”
14 year-old Alex is tormented on a daily basis on the school bus, but he cannot tell his parents about what is happening. 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 also joined in! 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.
Hirsch met the people who appear in the film through social media. Many people had sent in videos on You Tube, or their parents had written on blogs. Kelby’s mother had written to television host Ellen DeGeneres, and Hirsch connected with her after reading read her story on the web site.
A huge break for Hirsch was getting permission to shoot inside a school in Sioux City, Iowa. Hirsch spent twelve months inside the school filming with a small camera that looked like a phone camera. There was no production crew, and pretty soon the dramas of being at middle school absolutely just took over. There were no re-enactments, and every thing we observe is 100% real. Hirsch says that it was a very liberating process to be able to shoot the film himself.
The students themselves pretty quickly got bored with the idea that there was someone making a movie about them, so Hirsch was able to capture some pretty disturbing footage. Some days he would follow the principal, and on other days he would follow a group of students. He would often set up outside in the courtyard with a long lens observing what happened. And that’s when he first observed the treatment dished out to Alex. The harassment and physical torment even continued on the school bus. Hirsch rode the bus several times, but when the punishment got too difficult to watch, he made an unusual decision for a filmmaker. He stopped the movie and showed that disturbing footage to the parents and the school. It eventually changed the course of events.
So what happened to these various characters when the cameras stopped rolling and Hirsch went away? “We disappeared for like a year,” he elaborates, “but we stayed in touch while we were cutting the film. I wondered if they ever thought anything would come of it. Certainly when the film premiered we had everyone come to New York. It was just so emotional. They’re all doing really well. Particularly Alex and Kelby are just powerhouses right now. They’re like activists, they’ve found their voice, and they amaze me all the time. I get to see them a lot at screenings, and they get invited to a lot of events, screenings and community discussions. It’s amazing to see that they’ve been able to really do, and it’s just a great source of pride. I think one of the things that happens with the film is that they question their own role, whether they can stay on the sidelines or whether they ought to do something and step up and respond.”
Hirsch had shot some 350 hours of footage, and faced the daunting task of editing it down to feature length. He ran the edit room almost 24 hours a day, using multiple editors to shape the film and follow the various narrative strands. “We just kept trying to do our best to tell the stories and compose the film,” he says. “It doesn’t have narration to hold it all together, it just has to flow that was really hard. I got to work with some really talented people.”
In America the film created a storm of controversy, not because of its raw and emotive subject matter, but rather because the MPAA (the organisation that rates movies in the States) gave it a restrictive R rating mainly because of the use of coarse language. “The MPAA is a funny organisation,” elaborates Hirsch, when asked about the controversy. “They seem to like giving very violent films PG and PG-13s, and they gave us an R, which pissed a lot of people off, including Harvey Weinstein, who’s a guy you really don’t want to mess with. We decided to fight the rating, and did so very effectively. There were a lot of letters written by Congress people, and a lot of celebrities spoke out – from Meryl Streep, to Johnny Depp, to Justin Bieber to Ellen DeGeneres. And then there was a teenager who launched a petition completely on her own that got over 500,000 signatures. And I think the MPAA was really shaken by all of this, and ultimately they were looking for a way out. And we were able to get a PG-13 rating with just a minimal amount of editing. And that would never have happened without the outcry that we got. It was really intense to be in the middle of that and to not know how it was going to end. And I think for a lot of people who were following it it was pretty gripping. For me it was terrifying!
“There are not a lot of producers or distributors that you really want to have on your side, but Weinstein is one of them. He is such a champion of film, and he really championed this film. He’s smart, and snappy. There’s nothing that is mulled over for like a week, it’s a gut play and I really like that and working with him, and I think he did a really great job.”
Bully is an important film that 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. How do you effect change at the societal level, government and individual?
“I think my role is to effect the public conversation,” responds Hirsch. “I think that’s the best I can do, to make this film and push it as best I can and let people work out what’s best for them. There’s no one prescriptive remedy for bullying. But what is necessary is agreement, and that collective will to change. We have great resources on our website, a lot of stuff you can do in terms of bringing social and emotional learning to schools and give parents the tools to really advocate for their kids, giving kids the tools to stand up and encourage that. So we try and shape a lot of that but really my job is to inspire people to care and get out of the way and lead the movement.
“I think this is a universal story, and people really want to know how the subjects of the film are doing, and I get to tell them all the great news. They all want to share their stories, a lot of sharing and people want to tell what they’ve been through. And oftentimes people who come to the screenings have been bullied, and they’re really happy to see a film that’s for them. There’s lots of forums where you have legislators and educators and community members sitting together with me for the Q&A so I’m not alone, and I really like that. It’s a film to see in the theatre and talk about it with people, and families come together and that’s really gratifying.”
Bully is currently screening in cinemas.