One of the saddest film-going experiences of my NZFF 2012 run has to be Lee Hirsch’s excellent documentary Bully. This is not to say the film lacks hope or a positive turn – it has both of these – my feelings stem more from the very real feelings of helplessness encasing those interviewed: both the bullied kids and the teachers and parents charged to try and protect them from, and help them through these tough ordeals. The director has stated numerous times that his experience of being bullied growing up inspired him to want to surface the hidden stories and frustrations of bullied children and in this aim he has most definitely succeeded. Now, to get the film seen!
Not really getting on a soapbox about the issue, Hirsch embeds his camera into the daily lives and routines of three bullied kids with wildly differing profiles and stories, and also with two families with a teenage child who has recently ended their own life primarily due to being bullied. Schoolboy Alex doesn’t fit in and has no idea why he doesn’t or how he can. We see him constantly teased, derided and physically pushed around or just left alone in the midst of a sea of connecting kids. At home his parents are loving but find it hard to understand what to do and also feel (somewhat justifiably) shut out. Ja’Meya seems a reasonably all round 14 year old but she gets pushed to breaking point by bullying kids on the bus prompting her to respond in an extreme fashion – a course of action landing her with major life-altering consequences. Kelby finds herself off the team and excluded by much of her community when she publicly comes out as gay. Despite the backlash she encounters, and with her adoring girlfriend in tow, Kelby decides to stick it out try and to bring about positive change in her small town setting.
Hirsch also tracks plenty of positive stories such as the call to action from the families who have lost children, attempting to promote change in school environments and young persons’ responses when they encounter situations of bullying, culminating in a series of positive protest vigils across several states. Another good example is the personal story of turning away from being a bully from one of the friends of suicide victim Ty Smalley in which the boy tells of his growing self awareness of being part a big, awful problem, and his steps to making a change in his own life.
Stylistically, Bully is a fly-on-the-wall production rather than a talking head interview documentary and this format works well with the director’s aims to maintain a primarily personal trajectory for the film. Though very different films content-wise, elements of filming in the chaotic family environs reminded of Faramarz K. Rahber’s 2008 documentary Donkey in Lahore (which played NZFF 2008) both sharing a very candid flavour. Luck was on the filmmakers’ side when they stumbled across Alex at Sioux City West High School which already had a pre-signed media waiver in place and the principal – much to her credit, as the content captured at her school is not always nice and easy viewing – signed off on filming on campus, school buses etc. over the span of a year. It should be noted that the filmmakers followed prudent advice to get further permission sign-off from the families of those recorded. Hirsch also made a wise decision to also take on cinematographer duties, shooting Bully on a Canon 5D DSLR camera sans extra crew – using natural lighting and lapel mics etc (as Lee informed a few of us interested stragglers in an informal chat after the post screening director Q & A.) Without a conspicuous camera or production crew in the way he was able to build and maintain a bond of trust with his subjects and an aura of (almost) anonymity with most other kids and people in shot. At times it is astounding what the kids will do even with a camera present, in some ways reminiscent of a (subconscious) Big Brother confessional cam effect. Indeed at the decision of Hirsch to play some concerning footage, events filmed eventually led to an intervention with teachers, the families and some of the kids involved.
As others have already said, where the film falls somewhat flat is both in the area of thought around actual workable solutions to the culture that creates and fosters bullying and also of the complexity surrounding what makes a bully. In Hirsch’s film the perpetrators – somewhat understandably, given the film’s style and focus – get very little play; instead painting in black and white modalities the bullies get shuffled into a ‘bad/other’ assignation. Unfortunately this is not the most helpful way of presenting situations of often cyclic behaviour or outlining the collective cultural nature of the problem and its solutions.
Given these caveats Bully remains an incredibly moving documentary which allows a number of otherwise unheard, and somewhat representative experiences to come out into the light. Well worth getting to a screening if you can or being shown in an educational context alongside other resources.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell