Bully, the first feature documentary film to reveal what a full school year of bullying feels like to victims and their loved ones, is opening in select theaters on March 30.
Directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch, the movie provides an opportunity for kids, parents and educators to have a common springboard for discussions. In fact, the international organization Facing History and Ourselves has partnered with Bully to provide a free facilitator’s guide and companion website for the film.
“You have an inherent human right to not be bullied and to be safe at school,” Hirsch said during a pre-screening in Chicago. “Keep knocking on doors until you find someone who will fight for you. That is your right. The film is intended to create a whole lot more empathy and awareness.”
The film follows five real families as they try to navigate a world where a child is a victim of persistent bullying. We witness how difficult it is to be a victim, to be a victim’s family, to be a victim’s friend – we even get to watch the frustrations faced by school administrators who see the problem but do not really see the problem.
Painful. Raw. Helpless. Enraging. Hopeful. Inspired. Those were some of the words audience members offered after the prescreening of Bully in Chicago. At times, the outlook for victims of bullying feels utterly bleak and devoid of hope, and in the worst cases, children take their own lives rather than suffer through another day. We see this happen in Bully, and it is devastating.
But we also see the grieving parents persevere and use their sadness as a motivation to speak out and expose bullying. We watch as the bereft parents of 11-year-old Ty Smalley literally pick themselves up off the floor of his bedroom after his suicide and ultimately choose hope. We watch as the parents of 17-year-old Tyler Long painfully tend their son's grave and then go to work to make things better for another child.
While anyone can be a target of bullying, certain groups of kids are at elevated risk for peer victimization. Bully humanizes kids who fall into some of these categories: a girl who has come out as a lesbian in a town with a great deal of antigay sentiment, a boy whose facial features are slightly different and who is socially awkward, and a girl who is unable to get into a group or escape school bus taunting.
The audience sees these kids struggle and is allowed to draw its own conclusions, without the story being interrupted by outside analysis.
Director Lee Hirsch explained, “We made a conscious decision to not have experts speaking and to allow stories to play out as they are. What is encouraging is that we are NOW having these conversations. What I ultimately wanted to achieve with this film is to create an undeniability about bullying. It is happening, and it is not okay.”
If you have previously heard about the Bully movie, then you are most likely aware of the massive ratings controversy that surrounds the film.
Basically, the MPAA assigned a rating of R to Bully, effectively barring anyone under age 17 from seeing the film without an adult. (How the MPAA can rationalize assigning The Hunger Games a PG13 but Bully an R is beyond me. The Hunger Games depicts plenty of violence and killing. Bully includes curse words and the emotional impact of learning that kids have taken their lives).
Over 500,000 people signed a petition to get the rating changed to PG13, thus allowing the kids who MOST need to see this film to have access to it, but the MPAA was unmoved. As such, the Weinstein Company has decided to release the film without a rating. Meanwhile, in Canada, Bully has been released with a PG rating.
As I watched the documentary, I was struck by the fact that Bullied tracks the real lives of kids as young as age 11, but the MPAA has determined that kids of that same age cannot go watch it on their own. Does this mean that the children depicted in the film should not attend school or ride the school bus without an adult companion?
That being said, it would be best for kids to see the film with a trusted adult so that they can talk about how it makes them feel. If a group of teenagers prefers to see the film without their parents, encourage them to discuss it afterwards with an adult leader who they like.
Commonsense Media, a highly respected resource for parents, has published What Parents Need to Know About Bully to help adults assess the issues in the film and the potential impact on young viewers.
Teachers and parents can download the facilitator’s guide from Facing History and Ourselves to help them channel the emotions that students feel upon seeing the movie into actions for change.
Hirsch is hopeful that Bully and the partnership with Facing History and Ourselves will lead to cultural change. “I have a huge amount of optimism that this generation will be the one to say ‘bullying is no longer part of our narrative,’” he told a theater full of people in Chicago.
I noticed that the five families featured in Bully all live in smaller rural towns. My colleague Judy Freedman, author of Easing the Teasing, also picked up on that. “I found Bully to be very moving and extremely well done,” Freedman told me, “but I also worry that people from big cities might watch the film and say to themselves, ‘bullying is not a problem that affects our schools.’”
With that thought in mind, I spoke with Cynthia Lowen, who was the Producer of Bully and worked alongside Hirsch throughout the filming. I wondered why there were not any families from a big city in the film.
“We did not set out to create a film that followed people from specific places,” Lowen explained. “It really was a very organic process. We met families and talked to them and filmed them, with one leading to another. We did work with many more families than the five featured in the movie, including families from bigger cities, but ultimately, the way that these particular five stories came together really spoke to us.”
“But,” Lowen continued, “We had that same thought about whether or not the movie would be relatable to urban teens, which is why we arranged pre-screenings in large metropolitan cities. We asked big city teens, ‘Can you relate to this? How does this work for you?’ And they all completely responded to the film.”
Lowen pointed out the very simple truth – bullying is a universal experience. “We had a group of kids in the Bronx, which is about as different as you can get from Iowa,” she said, “and they were a great litmus test for us, because they were very moved by the film and understood what it felt like to be taunted for being different, regardless of what those differences were.”
For the many schools that are strapped for budget funds, consider the fact that anti-bullying actions need not cost money. Lowen pointed out, “It isn’t about spending dollars. It doesn’t cost anything for a teacher to say, ‘Hey, I heard what you just said, and it wasn’t nice. It doesn’t cost anything to talk to kids about changing the culture of their school. The comprehensive guide that accompanies Bully can be downloaded for free. The curriculum that goes with the movie doesn’t cost anything.”
Lowen is the co-author of The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention and Intervention, which will be released in September of 2012.
Bully will be available in the following cities:
On March 30, 2012
- New York (The Angelika)
- Los Angeles (The Landmark)
On April 13, 2012
- Chicago (AMC RiverEast)
- Philadelphia (Landmark Ritz at the Bourse 5)
- San Francisco (AMC Metreon)
- Boston (Landmark Kendall Square)
- Seattle (AMC Pacific Place)
- Minneapolis (Landmark Lagoon)
To campaign to bring Bully to your city, click here. If your school is not able to host a group viewing of Bully, perhaps you can organize it as an activity for your church, temple, youth group, YMCA, Girl Scouts—anywhere that kids go to find a sense of community and guided leadership.
The film ends with a simple call to action: “Everything starts with one. Stop bullying; speak up.” Be the one. Be the change you want to see in your school, in your town, in your home. Bring Bully to your community.