As opposed to “The Imposter”, it is obvious that director Lee Hirsch respected and had a passion for his documentary on bullying. For a parent, the subject of bullying is one of the most terrifying things imaginable and the fear that your child is being bullied or picked on is the ultimate in fears. Seeing as my eldest daughter starts school next year, it is something that has been playing on my mind a lot, so I responded to “Bully” at an extremely visceral and emotional level.
The documentary looks at bullying and its increase in American schools (particularly on the school bus to and from school) and the fact that these institutions where we send our kids, expecting them to be safe, do not want to deal with the problem. Hirsch has assembled a number of kids who have been or are victims of bullying as they tell us their heartbreaking stories. These include Alex, a young teenage boy constantly picked up on the bus, Kelby, a lesbian teenager bullied due to her sexual preference, Ja’Maya, a young black girl imprisoned in a detention centre after pulling a gun on her tormentors and David and Tina Long who are parents to a seventeen year old boy who committed suicide after being constantly being told he was worthless at school.
The stories from these kids and the effects of the bullying they have sustained is just so heartbreaking. I had tears streaming down my face while watching this film, as did the girl next to me. One of the most painful moments is when Alex is recounting what has been happening to him at school and his younger sister says that he is scaring her about going to high school now. When he asks why, she explains that she gets picked on enough already at her school just for being Alex’s brother because no one likes him. It is such an insensitive thing to say and you can see just how much it hurts Alex. You can see his mind trying to fathom why people hate him so much that they would pick on his sister for just being related to him. Another terrible story is when Kelby talks about how she was deliberately run over because of who she is. She tells the story in a joking manner but it is so painful to hear. Near the end of the documentary a new school year begins and she assumes that it will be a better year, but she tell us how as soon as she sat down everyone around her got up and moved seats. She said that was enough and her parents took her out of school and are moving towns.
The shocking thing that this documentary reveals is just how inept schools are at taking care of the problem and protecting the kids being victimized. When Alex’s parents go to the school to speak to the principal, she puts on a fake smile and pretends she is listening but then goes about showing them photos of her grandchild born days earlier. She totally disregards the problem and even trivializes the parent’s fears. Kids will be kids, we can’t watch them all, all of the time. Another example is when a bullied child is forced to shake hands with his tormentor but refuses to do so and is told by a teacher that because of that he is no better than the bully. The young boy explains that the bully’s handshake was insincere but the teacher will have none of it.
There is a moment in the film where I was initially quite angry with Lee Hirsch and that is when Alex is being physically bullied in the bus. I couldn’t understand how he could sit there and film this boy being bashed and was doing nothing about it. I was happy later in the film that it explains that Hirsch could no longer sit doing nothing so shares the footage with the boy’s mother and principal to show exactly what was happening to Alex. I know as a documentary filmmaker you try not to become a part of the story or influence the story in any way, but I feel that Hirsch made the right decision here.
Towards the end of the film, it goes away from looking at bullying to looking at what is being done to prevent it, as it shows all of the rallies going on in America trying to fight this disease so rampant in schools today.
This is a fantastic and very painful documentary that focuses on a subject terrifying to all parents. The only place I though Hirsch missed an opportunity was to go deeper into Ja’Maya’s story, specifically how she felt when she turned the gun on her tormenters. Other than that it is a documentary that should be seen by everyone just to open their eyes to how serious bullying is and how devastating its effects can be. If anything, Hirsch’s film has started conversation which is vital in reducing bullying and I highly recommend this call to arms.