Monday, April 23, 2012

"'s a story for victims. It's a film for them": Lee Hirsch on his vital, yet deeply problematic, Bully

“This was a really hard film to make. A fundamentally hard film to make. It never stopped following me around. The emotional navigation of this is something you’re never prepared for.”

That’s filmmaker Lee Hirsch, describing the process of making Bully, the new documentary that profiles a number of children and families in various, mostly rural US communities who have suffered from unchecked abuse both verbal and physical at their respective schools. Bully was for some weeks overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the Motion Picture Association of America’s initial insistence on giving the film an “R” rating for coarse language, thus making it inaccessible to precisely those viewers who might need its consoling message most; it’s since been edited slightly and given a “PG-13”. Which hopefully means that we can now move onto troubling questions regarding the film itself. I urge you to see Bully. I also urge you to consider it carefully.

filmmaker Lee Hirsch

Hirsch’s access, his obvious facility with earning trust, has rendered Bully a truly extraordinary, frequently alarming work, with scenes alternating between high emotion (from grieving parents, for starters) and shocking callousness (from a certain high school vice principal most especially). (It's also very well photographed, by Hirsch himself.) Seated at the head of the table, surrounded by writers assembled for a group interview, Hirsch seemed so gentle in demeanor I was almost worried we might wind up bullying him. When asked about how he achieved such easy rapport with his subjects, Hirsch claimed it was easy. “All I had to do was tell these kids that I was bullied and I want to tell your story and I care. I’m a warm guy. I was very candid about what the film was, about why I wanted to tell their story, and asked for their partnership.”

That sense of camaraderie, of a shared vision, is exuded by, for example, Kelby, an Oklahoma teen who either received threats or was viciously attacked by local kids and adults both after she was brave enough to make her homosexuality public. Her determination to hold her ground, to not let the bullies win, is tremendously moving, if worrisome in its possible consequences. Hers is one of four vignettes woven around Bully’s central narrative, that of Alex, an Iowa teen whose brutal daily harassment Hirsch captures repeatedly on camera, thanks to the generous cooperation of Alex’s school, even though the end result does much to condemn the school’s apparent neglect if not total indifference toward its students’ complaints.

Yet as you’re watching Bully, which builds towards activism, and thus must be regarded as polemic, you might find yourself wondering what’s missing from its equation—the titular character’s been left out of the movie. This despite the fact that Alex himself at one point says he wishes he could be a bully, while another child who was friends with someone who was a victim of bullying says that he used to be a bully. More dramatically, the film also profiles Ja’Meya, a bullied Mississippi teen who wound up pulling a gun on a busload of kids. Clearly, the relationship between the bullies and the bullied is far from being as cut and dried as the film implies.

“I tried to talk to the bullies, but couldn’t,” Hirsch replied to my questions about this conspicuous absence. “When you talk to the kids who bullied Alex they look like little angels. It’s the weirdest thing. And if you start talking to bullies then you’re getting into trying to explain the pathos of a bully, and there’s all kinds of conflicting views of who is a bully and what drives that. So it’s a story of victims. It’s a film for them. It’s not a perfect piece of journalism. When I threw away the notion of doing a rigorous, expert-driven documentary I found the heart and soul of the film, which was being with these families. Bully steps into the world of people dealing with this and tells their stories.” But even if we share Hirsch’s reductive view of the oppressor/victim relationship, can we really say that Bully honestly tells the victims’ stories?

In a recent piece for Slate, of which I can only make the briefest summation here, Emily Bazelton writes of her investigation into the suicide of Georgia teen Tyler Long, whose parents’ testimonies occupy a sizable portion of Bully. Every piece of information provided in Bully leads us to believe that Long’s suicide was the result of bullying, yet, as a brief from the school district—written in response to a lawsuit filed by Long’s parents—asserts, Long had been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and Asperger’s, while his suicide note makes no mention of bullying whatsoever. Which isn’t to say that bullying didn’t contribute to Long’s suicide, but given the relationship between suicide and mental illness, the glaring elision of such facts in Bully is at least misleading, if not deeply irresponsible. My heart goes out to everyone connected with this devastating loss, but I can’t sympathize with the decision to oversimplify Long’s story for the sake of fortifying a one-sided argument.

Hirsch with Kelby (left) and Alex (right)

So, arguably, Bully risks doing harm while it so clearly aspires to do good. But I’ll leave you with some of the good. We asked Hirsch about what’s happened with his subjects since Bully wrapped filming.

“Alex is doing so amazing right now,” says Hirsch. “He says he feels like he’s a teacher. He wants to teach everybody to get along better. He’s found his voice. His lip doesn’t shake anymore. He’s gregarious. You guys would all be laughing if he were sitting here with us. His transformation is probably the thing I’m most proud of.”

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