Q&A: Lee Hirsch, Director of the New Documentary “Bully”

Written on April 5, 2012 at 10:49 am , by


In the new documentary Bully, director Lee Hirsch presents an intimate look at how profoundly bullying affects the lives of five children–including two who were driven to commit suicide–and their families. Here, Hirsch talks about making the film, his experience being bullied as a child and what he sees as the solution to bullying.

What inspired you to make the film?
I was bullied as a kid. In elementary and middle school, a group of kids made it their sport to get me every day after school. I had black and blues and my arms were constantly yellow with bruises. It was really, really terrifying. I carried this experience with me and when I became a filmmaker, I knew bullying was a subject I wanted to address—but I didn’t know how to process it and turn it into the right story. Then, around the time when a lot of high profile bullying suicides made national headlines, I knew this film had to be made.

What was your goal?
People often talk about bullying, but there’s a disconnect between the concept and the actual experience of how incredibly violent and terrifying it can be. In part from my own story, I knew how hard it is to communicate how bullying actually happens. We decided to really follow intimately a group of kids and their families to show what they go through–make it live on-screen, and in doing so, be a conversation changer.

How did you select the children you featured?
We found them in different ways. Alex [a 12-year old boy from Sioux City, Iowa] was the heart and soul of the story. The Sioux City district gave us access to film in its schools. On orientation day, we met Alex and saw how other kids would bust past him–we immediately knew he was a kid who was bullied. We learned of other families through the news. With the Smalleys [Ty Smalley, 11, committed suicide in 2010 after being bullied], we reached out to the family and met them the morning of Ty’s funeral. His parents let us know that they wanted us there and wanted people to know what happened. We found Kelby [a 16-year-old lesbian from Tuttle, Oklahoma] through Ellen DeGeneres and her staff. Ellen did a show with the moms of two bullying suicide victims, Carl Joseph Walker and Jaheem Herrera, and Kelby’s mom wrote in to Ellen’s website saying how her family lived in the Bible Belt and was struggling with bullying and how other kids ran over her daughter with a mini van after she came out.

All the kids live in rural areas. Why didn’t you feature any children from urban neighborhoods?
We filmed a family in Minneapolis, but ultimately, the stories were dictated by the access we had to families and schools. It wasn’t a conscious choice to only feature families from small cities, but they were the right choice for the film. Plus, there’s a difference if you’re a family stuck in a town and there’s only one school your kids can attend, no other ballet classes down the street—if you don’t fit into a specific mold, it can feel a lot more suffocating. But we screened the film for a group of black and Latino kids from the South Bronx and they were completely moved and inspired to make a difference. They were absolutely able to connect to the film, even though the settings were so different from their own.

Was it difficult not to step in and intervene while filming?
It was the hardest part of making the film. But ultimately, we did intervene with Alex [once concern for his safety became too great].

One of the most shocking aspects of the film was how clueless many of the school administrators seemed—they appeared unwilling to address bullying or admit it was an issue. Have they seen your film and reacted to it?
It’s been a really amazing journey from our initial conversations with principals, the school board and superintendent. They stuck by us. We screened the film in Sioux City and received a standing ovation. Afterward, Kim Lockwood [an assistant principal featured in the film] said, “I don’t always get it right and I’m trying to do better.” I applaud the entire community for their bravery in airing their dirty laundry in hopes that it’ll change the conversation.

Do you remain in contact with the kids?
I’m in touch with all the kids and their families. They’ve all bonded from being in the film and become their own family. In fact, Alex’s family moved to Oklahoma City to be near the Smalleys and Kelby’s family.

What needs to be done to end bullying?
I think there are many solutions. The one we’re excited about is the opportunity to touch hearts and minds. We want to give kids the encouragement and motivation to see how powerful they can be when they stand up for someone who’s bullied. We’ve had lots of school screenings and seen kids charged up in terms of making the choice. One kid stopped bullying on his school bus and said, “I never would have if I hadn’t seen this film.” We’re also working with school districts and putting together a Facebook tool set that’ll help families know their rights and policies, and talk to schools if their kids are being bullied.

Going back to your experience–when you were bullied as a kid, what’s one thing you wish someone had said or done that might have changed your situation?
There was a group of kids who did stand up for me, which meant the world to me. As I recall, my town was very racially divided—all the white kids ate lunch at one table, all the black kids at another. I was invited to sit at the table with the black kids. They protected me and made me feel safe. That was a game changer. And it goes to show that there’s extraordinary power to stepping up to someone who’s being bullied.

Bully is now in theaters in select cities. Go to for more information.

Heather Eng is web editor of

Yes to ‘Bully,’ No to Bullies

Written on March 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm , by

Guest blogger Shawn Marie Edgington on the new documentary Bully.

There’s nothing more urgent in today’s schools than bullying, and there’s a must-see documentary premiering in select theaters on March 30th that powerfully speaks to the growing epidemic titled BullyBully tells the gut-wrenching stories of several children who were victimized by classmates in such a relatable way, that you will find yourself wanting to reach out from your seat to help them. Chances are that the only way your child will get to see Bully is if you or another adult takes them because of the R rating the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) gave the film.  Unfortunately, the rating has handcuffed the film from being seen in schools due to a very small amount of language in the film.

I was asked to screen Bully earlier this month so I could support the cause of reversing the R rating to PG-13. I invited teens, parents and an officer of Formspring to attend the screening with me, so I could get a strong sense for the film’s content from three different perspectives. I must admit, I went into the film thinking I was going to keep track of the number of “F” bombs that were dropped. I was wrong in a very big way. Twenty-five minutes into the film, I found myself searching for the reason for the film’s R rating. When it was over, all we could do was shake our heads as to what a disservice the MPAA did to such an important issue and film. I’m a conservative parent of teens, an anti-bullying advocate, a bestselling author and a mother who’s experienced both bullying and cyberbullying first-hand. I’m also a firm believer that every parent, educator, administrator and teenager needs to see this film, which brings me to the larger problem.

Many parents and educators think that bullying is a tired social problem that won’t go away and is part of growing up. Even worse, many adults don’t take cyberbullying seriously, and have yet to take the time it takes to understand the long-lasting damage it can cause.

This thought process has got to change, and here’s why:

Cyberbullying can be more damaging than face-to-face verbal harassment, because targets have no refuge. They are assaulted even in the privacy of their own homes. Damaging messages come 24/7 and rumors spread quickly. Since harassers don’t see their target’s reactions, they tend to become even crueler than they would be face-to-face.

Consequences have both short-term and long-term impacts, especially for the target. They often feel isolated, scared, helpless, humiliated and have a hard time trusting anyone, which is exactly why a supportive parent or trusted adult who will stand up for the wrong-doing is a must.

What can you do? You can’t stop the bullies or change their minds, but you can control their access to your children and how you handle a bullying situation in your home. Educate yourself about the problem of bullying and cyberbullying, its causes and consequences. Develop strategies with your child to avoid social problems related to online communication and assess your child’s behavior, on and off campus. Help your child take these important steps:

Block the bullies. You can do this on Facebook through settings, and you can block incoming text messages by calling your service provider. Check out Facebook’s Family Safety Center for more useful tools and resources.


Don’t read comments. Some messages and posts are going to get through to your children, either on their phone or Facebook page or from someone else’s. Help your child understand the power of deleting all messages before they read them.  Bullies don’t win their game if their messages aren’t read.


Ignore comments that are read or talked about. This is hard to do. Your child wants to defend themself, but the truth is that bullies want them to fight back so they can continue to tear them down.  If your child can find the strength to ignore what the messages say, the bullies will have no way to continue to harass them.


Report threats. If your child receives a message that threatens their safety, contains vulgar language directed towards them, or just makes them uncomfortable, they need to know that they can tell you or a teacher, and that they will receive ongoing support. If someone feels like their life or personal belongings like their house or car are being threatened, they should immediately report the threat to the police.  Most states have enacted laws to protect children from cyberbullies.

Give your child a voice. Let them use the art of filmmaking to write and direct their own anti-bullying 2-5 minute film. The Great American NO BULL Challenge is the largest, youth-led national campaign in America that combats cyberbullying at the youth level. Online toolkits about “all things cyberbullying” are available on the campaign site. The annual campaign uses the power of social media to inspire 25 million middle and high school students to promote awareness, courage and equality using social media and filmmaking.

And most importantly, take a few hours out of your busy schedule to see the film Bully. Take as many teens to the film as you can, and advocate for your schools to screen the film–it’s that important and that good! Every middle and high school child needs to see Bully, and you can help make it happen. I can’t help but contemplate that maybe the MPAA had the bigger “picture” in mind when they gave bully its unearned R rating…just maybe it was their brilliant goal to get parents to accompany their children to see the film too? The fact is that today’s teens are very aware of what’s happening to bullied victims every day–it’s the parents and educators who are in the dark and behind the times.

Producer Harvey Weinstein is now releasing the film without a rating, which could further limit who sees the film.  Theater owners have the decision to run a film without a rating, which are typically treated as if they have an NC-17 rating, meaning nobody under 17 can see it.

Share your thoughts about bullying and the MPAA’s rating of Bully in the comments below. Read our other posts about Bully.

Shawn Marie Edgington is founder of the Great American NO BULL Challenge and bestselling author of the Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook and Social Media.