Director Lee Hirsch's documentary "Bully" lifts the veil on a seemingly perpetual childhood scourge. Recording the experience of several adolescents with a compact video camera, he provides an authentic glimpse at conditions that some victimized students face daily. In one case the cycle of aggression plays out in a dramatic confrontation between an armed 14-year-old and her tormentors on a school bus. Two of his case studies are boys who committed suicide, allegedly because of ostracism and cruelty.
One of Hirsch's subjects thrived despite adversity. When Hirsch filmed him two years ago, Alex Libby coped with peer harassment by pulling into an emotional shell. Last month, more confident at 15, the Iowa schoolboy stood his ground before the MPAA ratings tribunal. He insisted that slapping the film with an R rating for cursing by bullies would mean "I can't see my own life" onscreen. The rating agency ultimately granted a slightly re-edited version of "Bully" the PG-13 rating the filmmakers coveted.
In an interview this week, Hirsch expressed his pride that "Alex was able to powerfully argue in front of the MPAA appeals board." In fact, he added, "All the kids in the film are doing fine. They all continue to impress me every day."
Hirsch began his shoestring documentary project in 2010, before bullying was an issue in the national spotlight. The subject had personal meaning for him. Hirsch, who was born and raised on New York's Long Island, said he was bullied at school, but found it impossible to communicate his distress, get official help or find support. Even his parents told him to get over it.
Making the film was both a cathartic experience and a chance to create a catalyst for social justice. Hirsch also explored that issue in his first feature, "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," a 2003 history of music being used as a form of social protest against apartheid in South Africa.
"Bully" features dramatic scenes of child-on-child assault, and of school officials failing to intervene effectively when students are harassed. He maintains that it's vital for authorities to move beyond asking, "What's wrong with building up some emotional calluses?"
"Adults who are victimized can seek police protection and other legal avenues," Hirsch said. "Youths facing bullies often face it alone, and sometimes when they seek help, their cries for help fall on deaf ears. It's all of our responsibilities to change the exact attitudes that are posed in this question."
Asked whether he'd rather show his film to an auditorium full of kids or one packed with parents and school administrators, he said, "It's impossible to choose between the two, as both have the capacity to engage in real conversation about this problem. Our point is to reach out to both kids and adults so that they see the importance of working together on this."
Since the film had its pre-release local premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2011, Hirsch's attitudes have evolved. Last year he placed a share of the blame for youth misbehavior on programs like "American Idol," where mockery is rampant. Now he's not so sure.
"It's not my place to judge the responsibility of the entertainment industry. Artists have the ability to use their creativity to reach people however they choose. There are so many great examples of how entertainment can create change in positive way.
"I'm so fortunate to have been able to make a film about something that I believe in. I'm as far from Hollywood as one can be, but I'm so appreciative for all the support that the film has received" from entertainment figures who have embraced his cause.
The ratings debate isn't the only controversy that has grown up around Hirsch's film. A legal correspondent for the online publication Slate last month took him to task for a "one-sided presentation" of issues surrounding one student's suicide, omitting a number of alleged personal and psychological problems that may have played a role.
Responding to those criticisms, Hirsch said it remains the school system's responsibility to provide a safe environment.
"You don't have to change the entire world or don't have to change a government," he said. "This is a call to action that should reach to all of our higher angels. We are asking everyone to make a choice to be nicer, more empathetic and to make the decision to make a difference [and] stand up for each other."
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