Interview: Bully

31 August 2012

A major problem in schools American schools (and, let’s face it, Australian ones too), bullying affects the lives of millions of children and families each and every year. Driven by his own experiences as a child, New York documentarian Lee Hirsch shines a light on five especially troubling cases, in order to bring greater attention to this extremely important and ongoing social issue.

In town ahead of the films Victorian premier at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this month, Hirsch spoke about the response the film, entitled Bully, has been getting from communities—and censors—across the US and the world.

Why did you want to tackle this subject matter?

LH: Personal experience. Bullying is such a big thing, and yet there’s never been a movie about it. As a documentary filmmaker, you know what’s being produced and there are some themes that just keep getting movies, and it was just kind of mind blowing that there wasn’t something to speak to such a unifying, common experience. So it made a lot of sense to me that this was maybe my story to tell.

Who is the audience for this film?

LH: It’s everybody. We had a screening with 7,000 kids at once and it was awesome—you could hear a pin drop. We’ve worked to facilitate over 125,000 students seeing it in the United States, which is something I’m really, really proud of. But anyone who’s ever gone through middle school can have a really strong experience with it.

Throughout the film you talk to plenty of victims, but never a bully, or the parents of one. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, why?

LH: Yeah it was pretty conscious. I think early on I thought the voice of this film was the voice of people who face [bullying], and I kind of wanted to live in that world pretty exclusively.

Of all the people in the film, the person who comes across the worst is the assistant principal at the Sioux City middle school, who does very little to prevent the bullying that’s occurring. Were you ultimately happy with how she was presented in the film?

LH: I think it’s a really complicated character, and for me it’s…she was honestly and accurately portrayed in the film. And what I feel has happened, which I think kind of sucks, is that I think she carries the weight of other stories. I think the collective frustration lands on her, so I think she takes a little more than she would have had other administrators involved in the stories been present in the film. So to that end, I’m not satisfied, because I don’t feel good about that. But ultimately she chose to respond to those situations the way that she did. And it wasn’t a secret that we were making a film about bullying.

The film caused a bit of a stir in the US when it was given a restricted classification due to several uses of the f-word, meaning kids wouldn’t be able to see it without an adult present. Since then we’ve seen petitions against the Motion Picture Association of America, and after some small edits, the film has been released with a more suitable PG-13 rating (in Australia it’s rated M). Is this the last we’ve heard about the controversy?

LH: (laughs) It better be the last we’ve heard about the controversy! One thing that I’ll say is that the cut down wasn’t anything significant—we really had a victory over the MPAA. There are multiple uses of the f-word that we retained that we couldn’t initially. But the fight was because it’s not fair to censor what’s going on. Bullying gets minimised by society, so to clean up what was happening or being said, was something that kids in the film didn’t want me to do, and the public didn’t want me to do. A student, Katie Butler, started a petition which got over half a million signatures—that’s not small potatoes. So I hope it’s the last you’ve heard about Bully’s rating, but perhaps you’ll see cracks in the MPAA system.

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