Filmmaker Lee Hirsch goes deep into Bully's heart
Some of the most unforgettable scenes in Lee Hirsch's film Bully come when the room falls silent and the camera zooms in on the face of Alex Libby, a seventh grader from Sioux City, Iowa, and a central figure in the documentary.
The sense of isolation is palpable as Alex stares off into space, contemplating his mother's comment that the kids stabbing him with pencils on the bus are not really his friends or his sister's observation that all the students think he's “creepy”.
These kinds of heart-wrenching scenes were collected during the school year that Hirsch spent embedded in East Middle School. After a few months of hanging around the hallways, Hirsch and his unobtrusive camera “melted into the walls”, according to the filmmaker.
“There was no lights, there was no gear, it was really low-budget,” Hirsch told the Georgia Straight by phone from Toronto. “This film was made on ticky-tacky and with a lot of heart and soul.”
Hirsch's inspiration for the movie came from his own experiences being bullied as a child—violence and name-calling that he said went on for “many, many years”.
“It certainly, I think, has been a defining factor in my life and given me the reason and the sort of drive to do this film and give a voice to the experience,” said Hirsch.
Bully has been the cause of controversy in the United States after the Motion Picture Association of America originally classified it as R due to obscenities heard in several scenes.
A petition started by a 17-year-old student to change the rating collected more than 520,000 signatures and gained the support of celebrities and 35 members of Congress. A slightly reedited (which involved deleting a few of the offending F bombs) version of the documentary has now been classified as PG-13 in the U.S.
Hirsch called the rating controversy a “double-edged sword”—one that he believes has ultimately helped to generate more discussion around the issue of bullying.
“I think that we are igniting a conversation that is long overdue, and it's a conversation that ought not happen out of knee-jerk response to tragedy, but now it's time to talk about where we go from here and how we can make a difference,” he said.
The film isn't short of tragedy, including the stories of two sets of parents dealing with the suicide of their children following long-term bullying at their schools.
Hirsch noted it wasn't hard to find families that wanted to share their experiences.
“I can tell you, there's no shortage of incredible stories and very brave kids going through some very difficult situations, families that are fighting hard against school administrations that aren't always receptive,” he said. “It reminded me of reading accounts from whistle blowers, talking about where their life was after they'd been through that process—they just sounded defeated and broken and hopeless.”
In addition to following characters like Alex, the filmmakers also sat in on meetings between administrators and students; that kind of access was due to what Hirsch acknowledged “was an extraordinary position” for staff to take.
In one frustrating scene, the vice principal of the school is seen telling Alex's parents that the bus route on which he has been subject to escalating violence is as “good as gold”.
Hirsch noted that prior to being granted camera access, the filmmakers held “deep and meaningful conversations” with school authorities about the issue of bullying. That involvement of school districts and partner organizations is something he hopes will help expose the film to a wide audience of students.
“My personal dream is that one-million kids will see this film, with a wraparound of a curriculum and youth leadership and adult leadership, and there'll be whole community gatherings and screenings,” Hirsch said. “There's a huge opportunity for a powerful youth movement here, and I hope that we can play a role in making that stronger.”
Watch the trailer for Bully.