Director Lee Hirsch talks Bully
By Anne Brodie Apr 6, 2012, 15:30 GMT
A documentary on peer-to-peer bullying in schools across America. ...more
Lee Hirsch’s documentary on bullying isn’t meant to be a scientific, psychological or definitive look at the problem. It’s just the way it is for five children we meet whose lives are daily gauntlets of emotional, physical and mental abuse by classmates.
Bullying plays out in schools everywhere, on buses, in empty hallways, via electronic devices and poisonous word of mouth. Previously bullying has been considered a natural, growing up issue but in light of so many recent suicides among youngsters, communities are beginning to recognize the problem and fight it. But not all communities.
Hirsch’s eye opening and shocking film shows that bullying is inadvertently supported by careless authorities. And some victims begin to accept their fate, like Alex Libby, an Iowa fifteen year old classmates call “fish face”, the focal character in Hirsch’s film.
There’s Ja'Maya, a girl bullied so much she resorted to gun violence, Kelby, a gay teen shunned by her community and other children in terrible pain. One of the villains in the piece is a grown up, Alex’ vice principal who repeatedly failed him and other victims through deflection and denial.
M&C spoke with Hirsch in Toronto:
M&C: The Vice Principle was clearly softy on bullying in her school and that resulted in further suffering for the victims. Is she still working? Is she feeling a ripple effect as the film opens?
Hirsch: The ripple is real. She’s really struggling with the film. It’s made her really sad. I think she understands. She stood up at that screening for 1600 people and apologized to her community for getting it wrong and not doing more for Alex, which is very brave. Very, very, very brave but I’m sure I have a lot of empathy. Others don’t but I do.
She takes more than her fair share of the villain role in the film. A lot of the emotion that compounds from other stories lands on her and I feel responsible for that because I didn’t realize that’s how audiences would perceive it. I’m protective of her because people want to make her this absolute villain and I don’t think that.
I think she’s someone who got it wrong and screwed up and we’re all capable of that. I’m just not that guy. She makes the little mistakes that administrators make all over Canada and the US and everywhere that allows bullying to thrive.
The gift she’s given us and other educators is that she said to me “If this film is going to help other educators it’s going to make a real difference. Then I can deal with the karma it’s caused me personally”. Imagine being her. Your superintendent says you’re going to let these filmmakers shoot in the school for the year. On the flip side, imagine being Alex. It’s not cut and dried but I’m not willing to throw her to the wolves.
I appreciate her for her courage. She did what she did and it’s in the movie because it happened, but she’s still a human being and she’s somebody that matters.
She could have gone to extreme ends to stop the movie, but she has taken it and rolled up her sleeves and I appreciate that.
M&C: The child bullies appeared to forget you were on the buses filming them because they openly bullied Alex.
Hirsch: I’d ridden the bus a bunch and we’d been shooting there for a year. The kids stopped noticing us by week two and so by week eighty, it was whatever. Kids are used to living their lives under cameras. Busses have visible cameras on them. Schools have cameras all over the hallways, so I wonder if that also played a role.
The concept of being filmed - they have cameras on their phones – is just a different headspace. The kids in East Middle were comfortable and got used to us. It didn’t take very long. The sadder thing was that they felt they had license to bully Alex.
They’d been doing it a long time and they’d gotten away with it for a long time. They felt it was okay.
M&C: Ja'Maya was badly bullied and took a gun on the school bus. She became the bully.
Hirsch: Ja'Maya’s was a strange story. It was a national story about the boy who tackled her. And it was a big story. Everybody closed ranks to throw this girl away and to celebrate the hero. It was a hero story. The kid who tackled her was the number one draft pick in the state at that time so he was already a golden kid. I couldn’t get the school.
I tried to get the bus driver really hard. So this film tells the story about the people that are victims. It’s a story for them. It’s not a perfect piece of journalism. You can see that what she did was totally terrifying.
I wish I had been able to talk to those kids and understood what was happening and what was going on with her.
M&C: You don’t interview the bullies as much. Why not?
Hirsch: The kids that bullied Alex when you talk to them they look like little angels, the way they played it in the principal’s office was the way it was. We tried to film a bully, but as I was making the film, it didn’t feel to me like the film. The film felt like it was with the families. When I threw away the notion of doing an intellectual, expert driven documentary and found the heart and soul of the film that also fell away.
Then you’re trying to explain the paths of the bully and there are so many answers. Some people believe bullies are little psychopaths destined for a life of misery and incarceration and other people think they’re little kings and queens and they’re doing fine and they’re quite well adjusted. There are so many disparities.
M&C: How did you find these kids? Is it strange that most of them are in the southern and Midwest US?
Hirsch: We talked to kids in LA and New York, in Halifax; we filmed a wealthy, urban family in Minneapolis. The stories in the film ultimately were the strongest and certainly the breakthrough for us was getting permission to film inside a school and that landed us in the middle of the country in Iowa.
Sioux City is a small city but it’s not a town. It ultimately happened that way. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s just where the stories were. The same problems happen in urban environments, in hyper progressive liberal college towns. Bullying doesn’t know from geography, class, or race or any of those things.
It’s one of those things where none of that plays a role. In big cities, kids that don’t fit in tend to have more options more ways to find validation than in some of the smaller communities.
M&C: What has been the impact of the film on Alex and his family?
Hirsch: Alex is doing so amazing right now. He says he feels like a teacher and he wants to teach people how to get along better. He’s found his voice, he’s confident. His lip doesn’t shake anymore. He stands upright, he smiles, he’s gregarious and he could sit in this room and make you laugh. He’s really found his voice and it’s been extraordinary to see his transformation.
That’s what I’m most proud of. The school board has been extraordinary. This is the work of change, being brave. And they were being brave. We screened it there for 1600 people. They are rigorously in this conversation, because they were there prior and the film celebrates that.
M&C: You were filming sensitive stuff for a year. How hard was it for you?
Hirsch: This was a really hard film to make, absolutely, fundamentally hard to make. You take on a lot and that was something I felt. It wasn’t just the families in the film. We filmed many more kids and families.
It meant a lot the connection we had with the kids and it meant a lot to them that I showed up to tell their story. I almost felt that their healing began at that point that someone cared enough to be in it for them and that helped a lot.
M&C: What about parents who lost children?
Hirsch: That was much harder. I filmed with five families that lots kids that year and there’s only two in the film. The youngest was nine year old. He’d hung himself in the bathroom of the schools nurses’ office. That was insane. I can’t even put words to what that feels like, especially the Smalleys because I met them on the morning they buried their son.
Their emotional navigation of that is something you’re never prepared for. Journalists are always ready to go but I’m not like that so that was a profoundly quiet experience. We met and she said “What do you need me to do?” and I said “I need you to wear a microphone”. We didn’t talk again.
He said to me “Hurry up, get this film out there and try and help as many people as you can.” It’s tough stuff.
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