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 bullyproject.com for more information.
Heather Eng is web editor of FamilyCircle.com.