Interview: "Bully" Director Lee Hirsh Defends His Controversial Unrated Documentary

Interview: "Bully" Director Lee Hirsh Defends His Controversial Unrated DocumentaryImages courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

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)

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Tags: bully, lee-hirsh, suicide, bullying
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