In the powerful new film Bully, director Lee Hirsch takes an intimate look at how bullying impacts the lives of five kids and their families. Lee and his team spent one year filming and were given permission to be "flies on the wall" to capture what was happening in our schools.
The documentary focuses on Alex, a 12-year-old whose classmates terrorize him on the bus and refer to him as "fish face" in school (the violence toward Alex was so extreme that Hirsch and his crew had to intervene); Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian who has been ostracized by her community; and Ja'Meya, a young girl in Mississippi who brought a handgun on the bus to ward off bullies.
Parents David and Tina Long and Kirk and Laura Smalley are also featured in the film. Both had children who committed suicide because of the torment they faced in school: 17-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley.
In anticipation of the film's opening, TakePart spoke with director Lee Hirsch about his experience making Bully.
TakePart: Why did you want to make a film about bullying?
Lee: I was totally bullied growing up, and it's absolutely a personal film I had wanted to make for a couple of years... It was extraordinary to me that in the universe of documentary film, in which multiple subjects had been revisited hundreds of times, there wasn't much about bullying. And yet it was such a common experience amongst people, not just in America but everywhere, that I felt like there was a compelling need for the film. I thought the film would connect with a lot of people who hadn't had a voice before.
TakePart: Was your experience being bullied similar to the children's in the film?
Lee: It was very similar to Alex's. It was very physical, very violent, lots and lots of punches. People felt like they had license to wail on me, and I couldn't figure out how to make it stop. I was really connected to Alex that way.
TakePart: Did you plan to include stories of children who took their own lives because of bullying, or was this a natural progression as you were filming?
Lee: I think it was a natural progression. We were flying with what really grabbed us. We chose to give ourselves one school year to try and tell a narrative of what's happening across the country. The suicides kept happening, and it was undeniable. I think that it ultimately became a very important component of the film.
TakePart: What were some of the most common clichés about bullying you heard from parents and teachers?
LeeLee: I think there were two. There is a disconnect when it comes to the actual, serious and real brutality of bullying, both in terms of words and physical impact. And there is disconnect when it comes to families trying to navigate schools for their kids. It can be difficult, and everyone is sort of ill-equipped. There is a sense that educators don't have the training and support they need and that parents don't know how to effectively advocate for their kids. We're trying to address all of that with the social action campaign of the film.
TakePart: The Change.org petition fighting the film's R-rating has caught on like wildfire. Can you tell us about this part of the campaign?
Lee: The credit for that belongs to Change.org and their incredible platform, and to Katy Butler for her commitment and bravery. That's a complete grassroots miracle, and it's important because it's also given me the courage to stand up and fight. The voices of half a million people do matter. A lot of our work is around transforming the school climate. How do we transform culture? How did we support schools that want to see this film? It's about empowering kids to be changemakers and to stand up and support them through the process.
TakePart: What do you hope people take away from Bully, and what do you hope they do after seeing it?
Lee: I think the power of this campaign is that you can walk away from seeing this film and say, I'm going to be out there in an empathetic way; I'm going to look for opportunities to make a difference in the life of someone who is being bullied. At the end of the day, that's what our hope is.