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.
It's pretty startling the lack of action that some authority figures take in in the face of this bullying. Did the bus driver ever attempt to stop this sort of activity or just turn a blind eye to it all?
We tried to interview the bus driver and she declined us. You know, it’s difficult, because on the one hand the bus driver needed to be looking forward on the road and drive the bus safely, and what do you do if you don’t have other support personnel on the bus? I think it is an issue that districts and busing companies and folks are really looking at.
I was invited by the United States Department of Education to screen some of those scenes for a gathering of the Department of Education with all of those state heads of transportation and we used those scenes to really frame a discussion because I think this is an issue that needs a lot of thought. Certainly cameras on the buses help but they have to be reviewed. My personal opinion is like Alex’s mom makes a lot of sense, in that if there’s what could be determined as horseplay or chaos the bus ought to get pulled over until people settle down. But I try to distinguish that I am not an expert, just someone who cares about the issue and wants to sort of put it out there. So I couldn’t tell you like what the perfect response should be because there are people way smarter than me trying to figure that out, but I certainly know it’s an area of deep concern and that I think folks need to be looking at very seriously.
Experts are still trying to unravel the dynamics of what makes a child a target. And as far as bullies go, it’s a terrain that is not fully mapped out. You have to check in with all kids and not assume anything when it comes to bullying.
Alex was only one of several kids that you followed. What did you find in all of the kids that you followed to be the cause to either make someone a bully or to make someone a target?
That’s one of those questions that, again, I’m happy to not be an expert because it’s a very complicated question. I think the takeaway that we have is that being different is the overall unifier for kids that become targets. It’s very hard to not know what it is entirely that makes a kid a target. I just read a study that was comparing whether or not bullying causes depression or depression causes bullying. Experts are still trying to unravel the dynamics of what makes a child a target.
You can have a kid who has Asperger's syndrome who looks the same [as everyone else], and doesn’t have an outwardly apparent disability but yet responds to social norms in a very different way. You can have someone who’s unattractive, overweight, a minority, someone who could be gay or lesbian, or just someone doesn’t fit into any of those categories. So, I guess the lesson is that we ought to think about how bullying can really affect anybody.
And as far as bullies go, it’s a terrain that is not fully mapped out. Some would say that bullies are these deeply unhappy kids who are modeling what happens in the home. Others would say that actually these are well adjusted kids who are excelling on all fronts who have chosen that route for dominance. It's potentially dangerous to pin down any particular indicator, and I think what that means for families and parents and people interested in the issue is you have to check in with all kids and not assume anything when it comes to bullying.
Were any of the families or the children that participated reluctant to get involved?
I think anyone who’s about to become a subject of a documentary film is reluctant initially. You know, less so with the kids, because they wanted to tell their stories. I think parents want to know: What [does being a part of the film] mean for our lives? Can we trust you? Will you care for our story? Is this just the nightly news kind of journalism or is this something different?
I think my role as a documentary filmmaker is to establish relationships and really communicate who we are and who I am and what the process is going to be. That’s where that partnership piece comes in, because they have to be partners with you, in my estimation, at least in terms of my approach to filmmaking. So it’s a process, but you know in some cases, like with Kelby’s story, the whole family was very much looking to tell their story.
With the Long’s and the Smalley’s they were desperate to tell their story about the injustice that they were so powerfully experiencing in the wake of the suicide of their children and so in each case it was different, but I would say that anyone who wasn’t a little reluctant when a filmmaker shows up at their door step is reluctant. I mean, wouldn’t you be? [Laughs.] I certainly would.
It seems like the only bullying victim who was able to stop the abuse was a boy who eventually snapped and attacked his tormentor. Reporting a bully to an administrator or police only seems to increase their ire. What do you think are legitimate ways to stop bullying?
When you look at certain dynamics, like, if you break down the population, we could surely say that 80% of the kids lie in the middle—they’re not bullied, they’re not bullies, they are just living their lives and figuring it all out. I think that the greatest opportunity that we have is to inspire them to not be bystanders.
The greatest opportunity that we have is to inspire the 80% of kids who lie in the middle—they’re not bullied, they’re not bullies, they are just living their lives and figuring it all out—to not be bystanders, to recognize their own power in the situation.
And if you can move them, compel them, and they understand the value and importance of intervening, it's remarkable how quickly they will turn into what you would call an upstander who recognizes their own power in the situation. The statistic is something like, in over 50% of situations, if someone steps in the bullying will stop in less than 10 seconds, so I think that our goal. And one of the things that we are seeing as a takeaway from the film is that young audiences walked out of the theater having made a commitment to not just be an upstander, to intervene, but also to reach out to that kid who is bullied and invite them to sit at their lunch table, sit next to them on the bus, to be protectors.
I think that’s a very powerful way to begin to change climate and culture. If more and more kids are making that kind of choice, not only is that not a choice that sort of beats down bullying but also I think lines them up in their lives to make that choice, to look out for that underdog and think about those kinds of things as they go through their lives. I think it is a process.
It’s very similar with adults that view the film; they can also recognize their own possibilities to do better, keep a more watchful eye, to follow through when they know someone is being bullied, to think about all the things that they might know of that happened to that kid and, if they don’t have the resources, to ask their administration for more resources and to look at compelling change from within.
It’s really remarkable the power that a movie can have in terms of shaping those kinds of commitments and we are super encouraged by what we have seen. So is it a big climb? Is it a long road? Absolutely, but I think we are working, we have 15 people working on the outreach plans and all kinds of partnerships, folks that are seeing this film as a vehicle that can actually cause real change, and that’s our hope.
To become a part of the grassroots movement to end bullying, visit The Bully Project website.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)