More and more, the subjects of documentaries live in worlds different than our own. Nonfiction film’s responsibility, as filmmakers tend to see it, is to shed light on a bevy of less-publicized injustices overseas, far from running water,advanced capitalism, or any kind of western familiarity. What often gets forgotten in the documentarian’s pursuit of the truth are the injustices that lie closer to home: the less popular but equally unsettling tragedies that occur in industrialized nations, questions of baser human nature that remain, even at this advanced point in civilization, unresolved. Lee Hirsch’s Bully, a film designed to spur a movement, confronts the issue of adolescent bullying. The film follows three students and the families of two more who ended their lives because of bullying: Alex, a 14-year-old boy who is relentlessly picked on in school because of his appearance; Kelby, a 16-year-old girl who is persecuted for being gay; and Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old girl who is facing up to 100 years in prison for pointing a loaded gun at the classmates who’d been tormenting her. All of these stories take place in the American Midwest, where one case of youthful ignorance and discrimination can stand in for thousands more across the country.
BULLETT: Last year’s It Gets Better Project was one of the main catalyst for the media’s renewed interest in bullying as a topic worthy of coverage. Was Bully designed as a response to that?
Lee Hirsch: The film actually began outside of that pop-culture moment. I’ve kept it in my back pocket for years and I was somewhat fearful to take it out,in part because it meant having to deal with my own demons. We started to develop it—and then there were two high-profile suicides of 11-year-old boys, at which point it was kind of like, Let’s get busy. The more we kept researching and digging in, the more apparent it became that people needed to tell their stories. You feel silenced when you’re bullied—as a kid dealing with it or as a family, the system tells you to shut up. We wanted to crack that.
The film doesn’t present a solution, but one does get the sense that this is an issue that can be resolved.
I love the idea of people processing the film and trying to think of solutions on their own, so I think the first and most powerful thing that we have going for us is that it doesn’t dictate what people should do. What we’re finding, and what we’d hoped for, is that the primary reaction people are having is, I want to be different. I want to take a stand for somebody that’s being bullied. I don’t want to be a bystander. And in a way, that’s the most powerful response there is, because it’s driven by youth and by people who’ve seen the film. We’re working with a Boston-based organization called Facing History and Ourselves, which is developing a really good guide for schools to work with the film, so that there’s a pregame and a postgame. We hope that a lot of schools will build the film into their four-year cycle.
Was it a conscious choice to set Bully in middle America?
I love these small towns and cities. They have this strong “Americana” feeling to them, and we found that kids from urban environments could relate to these stories just as powerfully—if anything, they’ve said to us that because it’s different from their world, it allows them to step into it in a different way. I also think that there’s a difference between these kids and kids in Chicago or New York City, in that there are so many other ways to be validated in a place like that. In a big city you can find a community—if you’re into magic, you can do magic; if you want to be in the circus, you can be in circus school; if you’re gay, there are so many opportunities for support. But in a smaller town, it’s that much harder to be different, and that’s ultimately the central point of the film, that bullying happens to people who are different.
You caught some violent footage of Alex, a seventh grader, being bullied on his bus ride home from school, which you then showed to his parents. Was that an easy decision?
With Alex, there had been lots of exclusion and isolation, his feeling like a nobody, not having a voice, and not mattering. That bus ride was a game-changer in so many ways, and so we felt like we had to intervene. For him, I think it was a huge relief that I was on the bus and I saw and captured it. After that, his mom and dad went to the school and fought for him. It was a very difficult moment and it strained our relationship with the school immensely, but it was ultimately good for Alex—he was being validated. So many kids talk about what’s happened to them and people just minimize its significance, which is when you run into that “Toughen up, take the punches” attitude. The perspective of the victim is, “I’m being fucking tortured,” and the perspective of society is, “Well,this is normal.”
Do you think Alex’s Gandhi-style approach of nonviolent resistance is best, or should kids fight back?
I think the onus shouldn’t be on the victim. On some level, I think the first clear piece of advice to a kid, a boy in particular, tends to be, “Try and fight back,” because, for a lot of kids, that’s where it begins and ends. I don’t know if that’s a terrible thing to advise. It only solves something if you win that particular battle. It’s not even about being stronger. There was this video of a heavyset boy who was being bullied by this little kid, and eventually he just grabbed this kid and picked him up and slammed him on the ground. It went hugely viral.
The whole point of school, however, is to teach kids that we’re part of a civilization, which means that we don’t solve things by beating the shit out of each other.
It gets to the question of where we’re going with our outreach materials: How do we do more social-emotional teaching? How do we prioritize those tool sets as being as important as math and science? These are valuable things that institutions can foster. Some do a really good job with it, but a lot don’t. We have the power, as a society, to decide that bullying is no longer acceptable. The onus is on us.
Photography by Stills from 'The Bully Project' courtesy of the Weinstein Company