It's hard to believe that anyone would want to prevent children from seeing Bully, filmmaker Lee Hirsh's eye-opening documentary about the effects of the child-on-child abuse that occurs at schools everywhere. By confronting viewers with the ugly reality of several students who are picked on because they are different, Hirsh hopes to create awareness and get bystanders involved to stop the abuse.
The movie primarily documents the lives of three young people: Alex, a 12-year-old who is verbally and physically abused on the streets, on the bus, and at school; Kelby, a 16-year-old who is ostracized, along with her family, by almost everyone in her conservative town when she comes out as lesbian; Ja'Meya, a frightened 14-year-old who brought a gun onto a school bus to scare her tormentors and faces a lengthy prison term. In addition, Hirsh follows David and Tia Long and Kirk and Laura Smalley, the parents of bullied children that committed suicide.
The material is incredibly disturbing, but it is important, and not something that the very kids who suffer and enact this abuse should be restricted from seeing. Prior to the great debate that raged about Bully's R-rating (it is now playing in theaters unrated), Complex spoke to Hirsh about his own experiences with bullying, how the presence of his camera might have affected the kids, and the best ways to help stop the abuse.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
You've said that bullying is a personal subject for you, and one that you were hesitant to cover in a film. What were your experiences with bullying growing up?
Basically elementary school and middle school were the years filled with lots of experiences of being bullied and for quite a few years it was constant name-calling, a lot of physical stuff. Particularly terrifying was my walk home from school—gangs of kids would beat up on me for sport, if you will. It was like a game between the kids that bullied me. They would try to find me and make sure they got some punches in. It was just this kind of constant situation.
A big piece of that inspired the thinking behind the film. I remember it being so hard to just communicate what was happening, to be taken seriously and get someone to say that’s not just kids being kids or that's not OK. It was just so incredibly difficult to be taken seriously and to be able to communicate the experiences that were really violent and terrifying. That was why I wanted to walk in the shoes of kids who were getting bullied and communicate in the film just what those experiences are really like so they're undeniable after one sees the film.
Several of the kids in Bully either did commit suicide or considered it. Did it ever get that bad for you?
I didn’t have a suicidal kind of episode. Thank God.
You've said that, as someone who had been the victim of bullying, you had reservations about developing this project. What were the emotions for you when filming Bully and watching kids be mentally and physically abused?
I approached working with kids and families like a partnership as opposed to a classic sort of filmmaker-type of relationship—I really did feel like they were my partners in telling the story. I had a sense that they were committed to wanting to tell their story and that that was the basis from which we would then start filming with them. Before cameras ever rolled I would spend time with the families and try to share my experiences and hear about theirs. We talked about what it would mean to be able to put this in a movie and how to help other kids and what their goals would be. It really was a very organic process.
There were incidents where they would lift up the seat, put his head under it, and sit on the seat. That had been going on, and for quite some time, and in other instances it had been quite more brutal.
I think the fact that I had the experience [of being bullied] was a real point of solidarity and trust, if you will, because I immediately had faith in their stories, and one of the problems is that the victims feel like people don’t have faith in their stories. People minimize [their struggle], they wanna believe that it’s kids being kids. The act of coming to them and taking their experiences so seriously and seeing them as worthy of telling in the story was already a transformative experience for them.
What were the initial reactions of the kids in the middle schools you shot at when you introduced a camera into their lives?
We were introduced to the student body in the school that we filmed in and my producer and I spoke with staff, then we spoke with the kids in the first assembly. We talked about what we were there for, and what the film was. We told them to feel free to come talk to us and ask us any questions they might have. That kind of dialogue took place and early on I would say there was lots of kids that would sort of rush by and flash a peace sign. [Laughs.] Or they would try and get in the shot.
That got dated surprisingly quickly and by the end there was like maybe one or two kids who saw the camera would still try to poke their head in. [Laughs.] Most of the time I was either alone or with my producer, who would be doing sound, but really it was me with a small Canon D Mark II, which is a consumer camera that basically looks like a still camera. There were no lights and sound might be, like, the subject wearing a wire, so it was never like "film production-y” in the sort of traditional sense. There was an incredibly low-key presence and I think that it also helps add to the sort of fly on the wall kind of experience that we had ultimately.
Kids have been known to proudly post incriminating videos of them beating up other kids on Facebook and YouTube. Was there any concern on your part that having a camera might actually encourage more bullying?.
I was absolutely concerned about that. I mean, I really did think in our particular case that wasn’t what happened, and it’s not something that I could prove. Really we are talking about what you see happening to Alex, because that’s where we caught the bullying in the film and that experience for Alex happened almost daily on the bus, sometimes it was worse. There were incidents where they would take his head and lift up the seat and put his head under it and sit on the seat. And I guess the feeling is just that it did not influence what was happening on the bus whether I was there or wasn’t there. Certainly my understanding from Alex, and even other incident reports that we learned about, was that that had been going on and for quite some time and in other instances it had been quite more brutal.