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It’s Time to Take a Stand with “Bully”

April 2, 2012

By John C.

At the beginning of the masterful documentary Bully, David Long tearfully tells us about his son.  At the age of two, Tyler started losing touch with how to interact with those around him and was relentlessly bullied since the time he started school.  We don’t even have to be told what happened to him, because something about the bittersweet home video footage of this smiling little boy tells us that we already know.  At the age of seventeen, he could no longer handle the severe abuse he was forced to endure everyday at school and hung himself in his bedroom closet.

Directed with a striking narrative quality by Lee Hirsch, Bully is opening in Canadian theatres this Friday.  I first saw the film at a Hot Docs press screening last April under the original title of The Bully Project, and it has stuck with me in a profound way ever since.  Both as a movement and a documentary, this is a film of blinding power that leaves us emotionally drained and desperately wanting to make a difference.  At its heart is the shocking truth that over thirteen million kids will be bullied this year alone, and that’s just in the United States.

Providing an intimate view of severe bullying at American schools, we follow an interesting group of kids in different states and small towns, giving us a raw and unforgettable look at the abuse they receive on a daily level.  Ever since Kelby came out as a lesbian, she has felt the segregation both at school and in her community, even having other teens try to run her over with their minivan.  She just deadpans the irony of them not driving something cooler.  Ja’Meya is in juvenile detention for pulling a loaded handgun on the school bus, but what the law doesn’t look at is the harsh bullying that pushed her to this point in the first place.  When their 11-year-old son committed suicide, Kirk and Laura Smalley started an organization called Stand for the Silent, which quickly turned into a movement of people coming together and holding candlelit vigils.

The unsung hero of the story is Alex Libby, a young teenager with a big heart who is mercilessly picked on and painfully starting to feel his lack of friends.  Throughout one quietly heartbreaking scene, he stands just outside a circle of kids on the playground, not sure how to join in and having nobody to remind him to wipe off the barbecue sauce still on his face from lunch. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore” he tells his mother when she asks him what effect the severe bullying has had on his personal life.  This is one of many profound and deeply moving moments in the film, when we realize why so many victims stay silent and don’t speak up.

“If you say these people aren’t my friends,” Alex asks his mother, “then what friends do I have?”  He is becoming painfully aware that the trouble he has making true friends has unrightfully caused him so much abuse, but he holds on to the hope that things will change once he gets to high school.  But things won’t change unless there is more awareness of the harmful effects of bullying and the school starts to treat it more seriously as a real problem instead of just another part of growing up.  “I’ve been on that route,” the principal naively says of Alex’s complaints of violence and death threats from other kids on the school bus, “and they are just good as gold.”  Another kid is forced to shake hands with his tormentor, which is supposed to just make everything okay between them.

I had the opportunity to meet Lee Hirsch when he was in town for Hot Docs last May, and even just for a few minutes post-screening he is clearly dedicated to taking a stand against the severe abuse many kids receive on a daily level at school.  As he was bullied in middle and high school, this is also a deeply personal film for him.  I’m not surprised by the amount of attention and controversy that his ambitious project has received on its way to the mainstream audience that needs to see it, just shocked that the film took this long to reach theatres. Over the past few months, the documentary also managed to shed a light on the outdated rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America, when it was given an R rating that would keep students from buying a ticket.  The Weinstein Company protested the move by releasing the film unrated.

Bullying is an epidemic and there have been far too many reports of students taking their own lives because they aren’t accepted.  Lee Hirsch films the interviews with parents and classmates of students who are bullied or have committed suicide in a way that is heart wrenching and deeply emotionally affecting, guaranteed to leave much of the audience in tears.  This is a film that hits hard and sticks with you, and if it could be seen by everyone that the issue of bullying affects, then maybe we could actually change more things for the better.  Heartbreaking and powerful, Bully represents the effects of documentary filmmaking at its finest.

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