With a choral arrangement of Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag" playing through the opening credits, Lee Hirsch's new documentary Bully grants audiences intimate access into the everyday lives of American children. Rather than a nostalgic look back down school hallways, the anxiety and terror felt by bullied students and their distraught families is palpable--and the resulting film is truly heartbreaking.
Inspired in part by his own experience being bullied as a child, Hirsch has created a film that serves as a call to action for students, parents, teachers and administrators to fight for safer school environments. With the help of nonprofit organizations such as the BeCause Foundation, the Wiatt Institute for Violence Prevention, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, DoSomething.org and the Fledgling Fund, a grassroots movement has formed in concert with the film. This movement, called "The Bully Project," is dedicated to preventing bullying-related violence and tragedy and providing resources for individuals struggling in the face of this issue.
Documentary spoke with Hirsch about the process in making Bully, the grassroots movement surrounding the film and advice for parents and students dealing with bullying.
Documentary: What inspired you to make this film?
Lee Hirsch: Bullying is something I experienced as a kid, and I've still had to process it in my life. As I was trying to figure out new projects, bullying was always on the list, and it just reached that moment where it felt like it was the right time to do it. And I had a vision for doing it.
I was also amazed that there really hadn't been a documentary about this before. This was a subject that needed to be explored more--not just in an academic way but in a very real and emotional way. I wanted to be able to show what it really is: Bullying is one of those issues you can talk about and get mired down in, "Well, it's just a rite of passage" or "Kids being kids," but there is a violence and terror aspect to it that isn't well-conveyed in a written or spoken narrative, and that really needed to be seen.
D: Your film doesn't just address what bullying is like in the moment, but how it affects the people who love the child who is being bullied, and beyond that, how a family can turn a tragedy into a call for action while at the same time having to deal with that tragedy every day. Was it difficult for you to get the kind of access you needed both from students and their families in order to show that?
LH: It was very emotionally difficult to get the access because with all of these stories, we were dealing with families in such raw moments. The most difficult access to get was being able to film inside a school whose administration knew that we were making a film about bullying, and that we needed editorial control and full access to places like buses and the principal's office to really capture what happens. So we spent a lot of time just trying to find a school district that would welcome us to make this film; as soon as we said we were making it about bullying, people's reactions were "absolutely not." So we were very fortunate to find and build a relationship with the Sioux City [Iowa] School District. They were willing to take this risk, and ultimately it's proved to be a very painful experience for them.
The flip side of that access conversation is that all of the families really wanted to tell their stories and had felt very marginalized. It was very hard for them to open up so completely, but they chose to do it because they felt that not only was it healing for them, but they could make a difference to other people. And I felt that with the kids, too-even Alex; he wanted people to know what he deals with. It was probably helpful that the conversations began with my own narrative--who I was, where I was coming from and the ways in which I could relate.
D: How did you find your characters?
LH: We found Alex because we had access at that school. We met him on orientation day before the school year started, and I almost immediately felt like he was probably bullied, so we started to keep an eye on him and it turned out to be a good hunch. His story, I think, really did become the heart and soul of the movie. And a few days later, we met his family. That relationship took some time to build. We tried really hard within that school to have lots of decoy kids and not let other students know that we were in East Middle to film Alex, but that we were in East Middle making a movie. And that was important to maintain.
We found Kelby with the help of Ellen DeGeneres and her staff. Kelby's mom had written to Ellen after she had produced a show about bullying and said, "Help, we're in the Bible Belt, my daughter is gay and she's been run over by a minivan. The police know, and won't do anything and we're so scared." So we were able to reach out to them through the help of those producers.
We met the Longs after we read about how they were planning to have a town hall meeting so shortly after the loss of their son [to suicide], and they let us come and be a part of that.
Ja'meya was a big news story at the time, but it wasn't about Ja'meya; it was about this high school hero who had tackled her on the bus. So for me, it became, "What was the deeper story there? Why did this 14 year-old girl take a gun on her school bus? What was happening to her?" And it turned out that she was being bullied for an hour and a quarter each way on that bus ride, but no one cared about her story. So that's how we met. We met her mom two days after it happened, and started filming with the family. We were really lucky; the lawyer they had found was really bold and broke some rules in sneaking me into the youth detention facility and also into the psychiatric hospital where she was being held, so we had some interesting ways of getting access into that story.
With the Smalleys, we had picked up a news story about the death of Ty and the funeral. Cynthia Lowen, my producer, managed to reach the funeral director, who was able to reach the family, who said, "The world needs to know." So I met them the morning of the funeral, which was crazy...just super, super hard.
D: Were there any concerns that having cameras there would change the behavior of the students--either that they would stop bad behavior when the cameras were on, or that the presence of the cameras would increase bullying once they were off?
LH: We thought a lot about that. Middle school is a place where kids are really caught up in their own drama, and I think very quickly we became very boring. And by "cameras," I should note that this was me with a [Canon] 5D Mark II, and my producer very occasionally with a boom microphone, but I'd say 80 percent of it was me with a small camera and Alex wearing a wire. What's fascinating is that they did bully him in front of me. I think that's reflective of what happens when you have a school climate where kids feel like they can get away with bullying, so I didn't represent an adult that was going to be a threat to that. They just got on with their lives and forgot about me.
D: Had I seen this film years ago, I might have identified more with the middle schoolers, but now that I have friends who are having kids, I find myself watching it and identifying more with the parents. I kept thinking, "How do you protect these kids when you send them off to school, somewhere that's supposed to be safe, but isn't always?" So from your experience, is there any advice you could give either students or parents who are confronted with all of these things you've seen?
LH: On the official side, we've built an amazing team of experts, advisors and organizations. We're going to have lots of answers up on our website our website by the time the film releases. And we're going to partner with Facebook on a first-of-its-kind toolset, so parents and kids can type in their zip code and discover what the policies are and what their rights are when it comes to bullying and harassment, along with an info-graphic and a step-by-step roadmap for how to navigate the system, fight for protection of your rights and to be able to be safe at school--because that's where the system really breaks down.
So for parents, a lot of it is about being vigilant in these conversations and really making sure they understand what's happening to their kids. And if they mention bullying, assume that it's probably a lot worse than what they're telling you, and just really be there and keep fighting the fight until your child is safe.
D: You mention earlier that you didn't represent an adult that was going to do anything about bullying, so the students kept doing it in front of you. Were you surprised by the way adults, particularly in the school system, were reacting to bullying?
LH: There were multiple communities we interfaced with, some of which were not in the film, where we just saw such resistance from administrators in particular to acknowledge and be concerned and activated. For example, in the case of the Longs, who lost their son, to have a town hall meeting where the entire school district banned their employees from even attending was devastating and shocking. A number of the administrators I met with were very cold to the problems that these students were facing, but on the contrary, I met people who were doing a great job: In Sioux City, we also filmed inside a high school called West High, where there was a very different culture--very good leadership, great assistant principals, much less bullying--but we just didn't have a compelling story.
Our audiences have become very enraged with the assistant principal that you meet at Alex's school. What happens is that she starts to take on a lot of the collective anger from all of the stories, which is hard when that happens to one of your subjects that you've built a relationship with. But she certainly made the choices in terms of how she responded to those situations. A lot of administrators have looked at the film and thought, "I've done that. I've made that mistake. I've rushed to judgment." What we hear from teachers and administrators is that they need a lot more support, training and development around the issue of bullying, and hopefully this film will help inspire that.
D: What has general audience reception been like? Any stories in particular from screenings that stand out to you?
LH: Well, speaking of that woman, Kim Lockwood, we had a community screening in Sioux City, which was unbelievable: It was in this old opera hall, and 1,600 people showed up. Kim chose to come to that screening, and she stood up and apologized and said that she got it wrong and she was trying to do better--and she was embraced; it was really healing.
We've had lots of screenings where there's a lot of emotion, and people come up afterward and talk about their own experiences that they've never talked about before. So many kids will come up crying and say, "Thank you for showing me that I'm not alone, and that there are others out there, and there's hope."
At the St. Louis Film Festival, one of the screenings was a youth screening and 500 kids came, and one student's Facebook response really moved me: "After seeing your film, on the bus I saw someone being bullied and I stepped in and stopped it, and I never would have done that before." The power of the film to be transformative is revealing itself and is really inspiring and exciting, and part of it is that the call to action is quite simple. You walk away feeling like, "I can make a difference; I can choose to respond when I see this."
D: Those reactions must be particularly emotional for you, considering that you're coming from a place where you were bullied in the past and it's part of your motivation for making the film.
LH: Absolutely. You set out to make a film and you just don't know what's going to happen, so it's really great to see that it's having the kind of impact that it's having. The story is still being written as the film comes out into the world. We have lots of plans to do big stuff with school districts and communities, and different countries have written us from their departments of education that they want to take this on. There's a life that's ahead of this movie that's very exciting, and we have a really strong outreach and engagement team that's working to make those opportunities happen.
D: You talked about the Facebook opportunity; can you talk more about the social outreach for this film and how that got started?
LH: We're still putting the pieces together, but we're trying to understand how we can combine offline, real-world action with online action and build a movement, and that's everything from providing opportunities for youth leadership to spearhead screenings and conversations, to partnering with organizations like Facing History And Ourselves, Great Schools, Education.com and Edutopia to develop meaningful ways of interacting with the film and building that online community. At the moment, we're very much Twitter- and Facebook-based, and as we roll out we'll have a much deeper integration into Facebook that will provide value, meaning and support to people in these situations. And that will lead to more communities forming around the film.
D: How did the students in your film react to Bully?
LH: They're our biggest supporters in a way; many have traveled to festivals and to special screenings through the Department of Education. Most exciting has been seeing the impact for Kelby and Alex. One of our partners is DoSomething.org, and Kelby's been working with them. Alex has taken on a whole new side; he's so much more confident, and he's spoken up at screenings and done press.
As a filmmaker, I really believe it's very important that your subjects see the film right from the get-go. It's an obligation that documentary filmmakers should have.
Bully opens in theaters March 30 through The Weinstein Company.
Katie Bieze is a graduate student in the Film and Video program at American University and works as a graduate fellow at American University's Center for Social Media. She graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a BA in literature and certificates in documentary studies and film/video/digital.