It’s kinda hard to find a connection between The Bully Project, a small-scale documentary that went around the festival circuit last year (including showings at Toronto’s Hot Docs 2011), and the media juggernaut that is Bully, which received its North American general release last week amidst a flurry of publicity.
This increased profile seems to be entirely down to one man – the inimitable Harvey Weinstein. The Weinstein Company bought The Bully Project after its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last April and, while allowing the film to continue its run of festival screenings, managed to create a storm of publicity for the renamed film’s general release over controversies with its rating. To cut a long story short, the US censorship body the MPAA initially gave Bully an R-rating, which would mean that it would be inaccessible to much of its intended market of teens who wouldn’t be allowed to see the film unless it was downgraded to a lower rating. After weeks of objection, the MPAA finally agreed to release the film as a PG-13 after the director Lee Hirsch agreed to three basic expletive cuts.
Bullying is probably the most serious problem facing schools across the world. This has probably always been the case, but it seems like now, with teenagers more exposed to the ways of the world and connected to each other 24/7, they’ve got more ammunition and tools than ever before. Whereas 40 years ago our idea of “bullying” meant name-calling and a few slaps across the head after school, nowadays un-relenting campaigns against someone can incite depression, self-harm and even suicide.
Bully was jointly inspired by bullying experiences that Hirsch went through as a child and the tragic death of Tyler Long, a seventeen-year-old Georgia teenager who killed himself after years of abuse from his peers. We spend time with Long’s parents as Hirsch sets out to investigate whether anything has changed in the Murray County High School board since then. We also spend time with the family of Ty Smalley, an 11-year-old from Oklahoma who hung himself after being suspended from school for fighting back against the bullies.
Alongside these two tragic cases, Hirsch also follows three victims of bullying as they go about the hell that is their daily existence. The most affecting of these is undoubtedly the case of Alex, a 12-year-old with problems fitting in who is “affectionately” called “fish-face” by his class-mates. But these same class-mates are intent on taking out all their frustrations on Alex, whether it’s on the school-bus or in class.
Alex: “Hey, you’re my buddy, okay?”
Boy: “I’m not your buddy. I will fucking end you and shove a broomstick up your ass. You’re gonna die fucking in so much pain. I’ll cut your face off and shit, I’ll bring a knife tomorrow and fuck you up and shit.”
Hirsch’s intentions are undoubtedly honourable but his basic ability to put together a good balanced documentary has to be called into question. The choice to film everything with hand-held cameras, coupled with a tightly cropped auto-focusing style makes for a very jarring experience. Motion sickness could kick in and start to take away from the actual stories being told – I speak from first-hand experience.
Add in a reluctance to blame anything on anyone else but the school administrators (who are admittedly quite useless) and you do feel like you’re seeing a very single-minded manipulative piece of work. School boards can of course do a lot more, but the role that the parents of bullies play in shaping their children’s attitudes and tolerance levels is barely touched upon. Combatting bullying is a combined effort, but you can’t help feeling like Hirsch has placed all the blame at the feet of the schools.
There’s also a curious case study which threatens to throw the entire film’s intentions into question. 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson, a victim of bullying, takes her mother’s loaded gun on to a school bus and threatens the whole bus with it, before being tackled to the ground and apprehended by authorities. Admittedly she was bullied to a breaking point and felt she needed to retaliate, but amidst teary interviews with her mother, not one moment is spent lingering on the fact that Ja’Meya was in a position to find a loaded gun to take on a school-bus.
As a piece of activist film-making Bully is incredibly worthwhile and if it leads to new discussions and legislation across American schools then that is undoubtedly a good thing. It just seems like a wasted opportunity that lingers on the problem, rather than any form of solution.
U.S.A. / Directed By: Lee Hirsch / Starring: Alex, Ja’Maya, Kelby, David Long, Tina Long, Kirk Smalley / 99min / Documentary / Release: 30 March 2012 (U.S.), 6 April 2012 (Canada)