As most people reading a website with “dork” in the title probably know, schoolyard bullying is an ongoing epidemic that isn’t going anywhere. It’s a painful issue that’s sensitively explored in the new documentary Bully. Director Lee Hirsch spent a year with a few troubled students; 12-year-old school bus violence victim Alex from Iowa, 16-year-old Bible belt lesbian Kelby, and 14-year-old Ja’Meya from Mississippi who eventually acted out violently against her bullies in frustration. Hirsch also spends time with two families who had children commit suicide as a result of bullying and now participate in national campaigns to raise awareness.
As you may have guessed, it’s not the cheeriest film to hit screens this week, but it’s an important one. Bullying is an issue that everyone knows exists, yet sadly accepts as an unavoidable reality. Whatever impact it will have, Hirsh’s film at least draws attention to the severity of the problem and the ways that many parents, students, and school officials tend to ignore bullying. We recently got a chance to speak with the director at great length about the production, the film’s recent MPAA controversy in the States, and the hopeful future impact of his new documentary.
I know this was a project that was near and dear to your heart because it’s something you went through as a child. When you get done at the end of the day and you walk away from the camera, how much of these children’s stories follow you home?
It never didn’t follow me around. This was a really hard film to make. Absolutely, fundamentally a hard film to make, and you take on a lot. I think that was something my whole team felt. It wasn’t even just the families in the film, we filmed with many more kids and families, so there was even more of that.
I think that it meant a lot, this sort of connection that we had or I had with the kids in the film and their families. It meant a lot to them that I showed up to tell their story. I almost feel like the healing began just at that point; that someone cared enough to be in it for them
And that’s especially tough when you’re dealing with parents that have just lost children. I’m assuming that was harder to deal with.
It was much harder. Much harder. I filmed with five families that lost kids that year and there’s only two of them in the film. The youngest was nine years old and he had hung himself in the bathroom at school in the nurse’s office. So, yeah, that was insane, actually. I can’t even put words to what that feels like. Particularly with the Smalley’s, because I met them on the morning that they buried their son. The emotional navigation of that is something that you’re never prepared for. Sometimes you see journalists and they’re ready to go, and I’m not like that and I’ve never had that experience before, so that was a profoundly quiet experience. We sort of met and Ty’s father said “What do you need?” and I said “I need you to wear a microphone.” He said okay, and then we didn’t talk again and at the end of the funeral he handed me the microphone to me and said “Hurry up. Get this film out there and try to help as many people as you can.” So it’s tough, tough stuff.
How did you find these kids and their families, and how did it come to be that most of them happened to be from the Southern or Midwestern United States?
It’s funny because we talked to kids in Los Angeles, kids in New York, we talked to a family in Halifax, we filmed a really wealthy urban family in Minneapolis. The stories in the film are the stories that ultimately were the strongest, and certainly the breakthrough for us was getting permission to film inside a school, so that sort of landed us in the middle of the country in Iowa. It’s not such a small city. Sioux City is about a hundred thousand people. It’s a small city, but it’s not a town.
It just ultimately landed that way. It wasn’t a conscious choice to say we weren’t going to film in sort of small cities and towns. It was just where the stories were.
I will say one more thing about that, though. It’s important to note that the same problems happen in urban environments and in hyper-progressive liberal college towns. It’s seems to me like bullying knows no geography or class or race or any of those things. It’s one of the only things where things like that don’t play a role. In big cities, though, I think that kids that don’t fit in tend to have more options, more ways to find validation and community rather than in some of the smaller communities.
What was it that made some stories stronger than others because you aren’t exactly looking for any sort of resolution in the film?
Yeah, the concept of resolution was a really strange one when making this film because these narratives are open arcs with very little resolution. I mean, I think it was important that we had different types of stories so we don’t have five stories about GLBT kids getting bullied. These are very distinct stories. That was important and I would say that ultimately the film is four vignettes in one really big story, because I think Alex’s story is the one that stands as the throughline; that sort of has the full kind of journey. The others were more cobbled together, and that’s how it was with the rest of the stories that we filmed because we couldn’t get the access to see that as testimonial. That was part of the process.
How were you able to get the footage that you got while riding on Alex’s bus to school every day? Was that just a case of people forgetting you were there?
Yeah, it was largely that. I had ridden the bus a bunch. We had been shooting there almost all year and when things got to a head, that was toward the end of the school year. I think kids stopped noticing us by about week two, so by about week 80 it was nothing.
That’s the other thing, too. Kids today are so used to living their lives under cameras. Busses have very visible video cameras on them in this district and in many of the ones that we looked at. Schools have cameras all over the hallways. So I wonder if that played a role. The concept of being filmed. Kids have cameras on their phones now, too. I wonder if it’s a different kind of head space, but I think in specificity, the kids in East Middle got pretty used to us and it didn’t take long for them to stop noticing us and get back on with their lives.
The thing that I found the most troubling was that it seemed like they had license to bully him. Like they had been doing it for a long time and they had gotten away with it for a long time. I think they just felt that it was okay.
What were the challenges of trying to get access to the people who actually did the bullying, and particularly in the case of Ja’maya, the girl who brought the gun onto her bus in Mississippi because in a way it illustrates how someone who is being bullied can turn into one themselves.
I tried to talk to the bullies in Ja’maya’s story and we couldn’t. You know, that was a very strange story because what was happening was that it was this huge story about the heroism of the boy who ended up tackling her on the bus. It was a very big story and everyone had kind of closed rank to sort of throw this girl away and to celebrate the hero. It was a hero story. It happened to be about a kid who was, I think, the number one football draft pick in the state at the time, so at the time he was already a golden kid. I couldn’t get the school. I tried to get the bus driver really hard, and I couldn’t get him.
Look, I mean, in a way, this is a story for the victims. It’s not a perfect piece of journalism. It’s a film that steps into the world of people dealing with this and tells their stories.
But of course, those kids on that bus were terrified. The film doesn’t deny that. It shows that and everyone can see that what she did was totally terrifying. I wish that I had been able to talk to some of those kids. I wish I could have talked to them about what they thought was happening or what they thought was going on with her.
How did you get access to the schools you did end up gaining access to?
The biggest access was getting access to Alex’s school in Sioux City. Kelby’s school (in Oklahoma) gave me ten minutes to go in there and get what I could provided that I didn’t show a single other student, which if you notice, it’s very carefully shot with just her walking through the hallways.
In Sioux City we were really fortunate because the school board granted us rather unfettered access for a year. As you see we’re in the principal’s office and we’re in the hallways with her. We were privy to stuff that you normally wouldn’t be privy to, so it was a brave decision on their part.
It sucks in a way, because they are a district that’s really committed and trying really hard, and they have ten years of elbow grease into the fight of trying to transform the schools so it was really an act of courage. They thought they were doing a great job and then they realized that maybe they weren’t and that maybe they’ll learn from this and it will make them better even if it reveals things they aren’t very proud of. It was really awesome that they let us in.
Then we had a pretty complicated system with releases. We had general releases for all the students, but if they were interviewed or they were seen bullying, they had to go and get proper, formal releases. 28 of the 29 kids that were involved in some way with bullying Alex all had their parents sign releases after the fact, which was pretty amazing.
Were there any bullies that you did end up talking to, but you just couldn’t end up using the material?
You know, the thing about the kids that bullied Alex just look like little angels. It’s the weirdest thing. As we were making the film it didn’t feel to me like the right thing. This felt to me like the story was with the families and telling their stories. When I sort of threw away the notion of doing a sort of rigorous, expert driven sort of documentary and just found the heart and soul of the film with these families and their stories, that sort of fell away. Then you’re getting into trying to explain the pathos of a bully and there’s all kinds of conflicting views on what is a bully and what drives that. Some people think they are little psychopaths destined for a life of misery or incarceration and other people think they are little kings and queens that are doing just fine and are really well adjusted. There was just so much disparity of views that going down that road would really require a different movie.
I sort of like this kid in the movie, the friend to Ty Smalley’s Trey, who says that he used to be a bully and then he stopped. I think that correlation between being bullied and choosing good behaviour in the end is important. But again, because the film isn’t this psychologist driven exploration and something more character driven, it’s just a different film.
Has the school board in Sioux City changed at all since?
I think the school board has been extraordinary. This is the work of change. The work of change is being brave and I think they were brave. I mean, we screened it there for 1600 people at a public screening. They are rigorously involved in this conversation. In part because they were involved prior and in part because this film has accelerated that discussion.
With someone like Alex, was there any concern that following him around with a camera in the school might draw even more attention to someone who is already a target?
Totally. We were very careful to have lots of kids that we filmed in the school. So we had decoy kids. The staff kind of knew. At a certain point we were discussing our concerns with the administration, before we even showed them the footage. It was already escalating, so there was no secret at that point to the administration that Alex was being bullied and we were very much following what was happening to him and how things were handled. I don’t believe the student body figured it out, which was really good. Alex of course knew. He was like a partner. He had to choose this. It was a choice for him every day to continue being filmed. We’d have to find each other and I’d slip him a microphone and we’d catch on when the kids were walking to lunch or something like that. We did our best to not have other kids know.
The assistant principle in Alex’s school and how she behaved is disturbing. Is she still working and what do you think the ripple effect will be on her life once the film is seen?
[breathes deeply] Well, it’s already happening. The ripple is real. She’s really struggling. It’s made her really sad.
Does she understand what she did?
I think so. She stood up at that screening in front of 1600 people and apologized for getting it wrong and not doing the work for Alex. That was brave, very brave. But I have a lot of empathy for her. Others don’t, but I do.
Is it because she took responsibility or something before that?
Yeah, because she took responsibility. Because I think she takes more than her fair share of the villain role in the film. A lot of the emotion that compounds from the other stories lands on her and I feel really responsible on some level for that because I didn’t realize that’s how audiences would perceive it. So 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 definitely got it wrong and definitely screwed up and we’re all capable of that. I’m just not that guy. I don’t want to go out and do anything to…I think she’s someone who makes the kind of little mistakes that a lot of administrators make all over Canada and the United States and Europe and everywhere else that allows bullying to thrive. So, the gift that she’s given us and other educators is…she said to me at one point, “if this film is going to help other educators and make a real difference, then I can deal with the harm that it’s caused me personally.” It’s very difficult. Imagine being her and your superintendent says, “you’re going to let these filmmakers shoot in your school for a year” But on the flipside imagine being Alex or one of the other kids who was a victim of bullying in her school. It’s not cut and dry and I’m not willing to just throw her to the wolves because I appreciate her and her courage. When I’ve screened the movie for groups of administrators the person that I think is honest stands up and says, “we’ve made those mistakes.” She did what she did and it’s in the movie because it happened, but she’s still a human being and someone that matters. I think that she could have gone to extreme ends to try and stop this movie from being released, but she’s taken it and I appreciate that.
You’re dealing with a lot of children who have been through some horrible traumas in their lives and it’s a lot to get people to really open up on camera about that. What did you do going in to earn the trust of the kids? I know for parents it’s a different situation because they might understand it a little more, but how did you approach the kids?
It was so, so easy. I just had to tell them that I was bullied, approach them like a human being, and tell them that I wanted to tell their story and that I care. They were really appreciative. I’m a warm guy. I’m open. I was really candid about what the film was and why I wanted to tell their story. I asked for their partnership. I didn’t treat them like just any subject in a movie. It was about relating to them. We would break bread with the families before we started filming them and really talk about what the film was about, who I was, where I was coming from, and what my hopes were for the film. And those things mattered when building those relationships.
Speaking to the broader unfortunate controversy with the rating in the United States—
But not here [Canada]. Yes!
Exactly, when you saw that Canada gave it a PG rating—
I was jumping with joy. Because we were in the middle of this fight. To take on the MPAA is not a small thing. And then it was getting bigger and bigger and there was Katie Butler and her petition. It was growing by the tens of thousands each day and now it’s over half a million. You sometimes think, “Am I crazy?” And then the phone calls started. BC, PG. Yes! Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario. It just kept coming and it was so great. I think it gave courage to me and to our supporters. I think it was very meaningful.
This is something kind of tied to that because it shows the hypocrisy of the MPAA. I hearken back to when Billy Elliot was released and got an R-rated for language. They had to dub a lot of it to get a PG rating and the reason the MPAA gave was, “that’s not how people in Middle America talk.” And yet, you make a documentary that takes place largely in Middle America and—
Yep, Universal had a really hard time because it was British and they used a lot of salty language.
Right because the Brits are really a problem [Laughs]. Look, there’s not a teenager in America who has not heard or used bad language. I think the bigger issue for the MPAA is how many people have drawn the analysis that they continually rubber stamp movies with hyper or extreme violence or the kind of sex that they think is appropriate. All the things that get by all the time, film after film, studio picture after studio picture. Like Hunger Games, which gave us this wonderful contrast in the middle of this fight. The New Yorker really beautifully spoke to it. I think Americans are saying, “Fuck off. You’re not speaking for us.” Really, if you want to get into a conversation about representing American Judeo-Christian values, people are more concerned about violence than they are language. And so I think the bigger question is who do the MPAA actually represent and are they doing a good job? Are they really speaking for parents? That came up during this conversation and it’s a legitimate question. While we haven’t been victorious, I know for a fact that there has been very deep conversation within the MPAA about this and there may be changes. Which would be awesome.
And are theater owners being receptive about showing it unrated?
Certainly. Some are. AMC has been incredible and they are a huge theatre chain. Regal is showing it. They aren’t being as flexible, but they’re at least showing it. Some just won’t show it. What I like is that they are kind of taking it on a case-by-case basis and they’re all forced to evaluate where they stand on it. Some have gone against the conglomerate and ignored the power structure. It’s actually been fascinating to see resistance. There’s been so much resistance against the MPAA. I think a lot of studios are actually cheering us on because they are just so sick of the rating system or feel like it doesn’t work.
How did you find these kids? How did you find people who were willing to open up on camera about their most intimate fears that they weren’t even willing to discuss with their parents? What was that process like?
Well, every story was very different. With Ja’Meya, we reached out to the Mom. I just fundamentally had a different take on what was happening and get them to tell their story about what was happening and why. So that was how we got the access there. It was a really deep conversation with her Mom right after it happened. Then we gathered with her pastor and her family. That’s how the whole process began. Then we got inside where she was incarcerated. With Kelby, she and her family were desperate to tell their story. It was like, “Please come. How soon can you get here?”
Did they find you online?
We found them. Kelby’s mom had written into Ellen’s blog and Ellen’s producers connected with us. We sent them a letter and they immediately were very welcoming and very willing to tell their story. That’s how it was with most of the families.
I found Alex at that school on the first day of shooting and I just knew. That’s the irony. People say, “oh you can’t really see bullying. I don’t see it, I look for it and I care, I just don’t’ see it.” And I would say, “if you’re looking, you’ll see it. If you’re looking for who’s left out and who is being trampled over, you’ll see it.”
Were there any stories or people who you were interested in filming but weren’t able to get permission?
We got everyone’s permission that we needed except one and that was because he left the district and we couldn’t find him. That was the kid whose face was blurred on the bus. It wasn’t that they denied us permission, it’s just that we couldn’t find him. There are a lot of transient families in that community and they were one of the families who had just come and gone. With the releases, we were really fortunate. At the point that we discovered we had to get 28 releases, had those parents said “no” we would have had a very different film. So we were really lucky. The harder part was that there were entire stories that we filmed, but couldn’t use. Making those phone calls to those families and saying, “I’m sorry you’re not in the movie” was tough. Like, if you look at the trailer, you’ll see there’s a kid who is incredibly eloquent. We spent a long time shooting that family and I felt like I broke their hearts. It was really hard.
Was that just a time consideration?
Yeah, it was a time consideration. It was also an editorial consideration. We just didn’t have the pieces we needed for the over all film. I do believe it will be on the DVD though.
Something in the film that really surprised me was the near universal gang abuse that Kelby suffered after coming out and it made me wonder if there was anything that surprised of even shocked you while you were filming and whether any of those surprises changed the objective of the film at all?
The film found itself in the edit to a large extent. I tend to overcompensate when I make a movie. I’ll shoot experts and I’ll shoot things I don’t need because I’m afraid that I don’t have enough of a story. I think the thing that I was deeply bothered by was [Assistant Principle] Kim Lockwood and the way that Alex’s situation was handled. That was very insightful and upsetting on many levels though various things we filmed that are or aren’t in the movie. The failure of the school district in the wake of Tyler Long’s suicide to attend the Town Hall meeting to talk about bullying that was organized by local politicians and police, all the key players in the community showed up. The fact that the school district boycotted it, just raised the roof of anger and frustration and just felt so heartless. It was frustrating. It was a hard movie to make, I promise you. But also, these kids were so inspiring. The moments when you saw Alex happy were incredible. There are little moments in this film that I love so much, like when the girls signs Alex’s shirt on the last day of school. There are a million kids and they’ve all got a million names on their shirts and Alex doesn’t have any, then she turns around and asks to sign his shirt. That to me was incredible. That whole day we filmed so much cool stuff with him. He was singing songs, he was doing philosophy like when he was saying, “I don’t believe in luck, I believe in hope.” Alex to me is just magic. So there you go.
It might be a bit early for this since the film has just come out, but what has the impact of this film been like for Alex and his family?
Boy, Alex is doing so amazing right now. If you image search him from a lot of the events that we’ve done or the video or even from Nightline, you’ll see it. He said “I feel like I’m a teacher! I want to teach the world 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. He could sit in this room and you would all be laughing if he was speaking. He really found his voice and its extraordinary to see. His transformation is what I’m most proud of.