Director Lee Hirsch and Alex Libby

“Some of the poorest schools in this country have some of the best school climates. It’s not money. It’s commitment. It’s care. It’s ‘Do we value social and emotional learning as much as we do hard numbers testing?'” – Lee Hirsch

A tragic increase in suicide rates among kids, teenagers, and college students in America in recent years has changed the national discussion about bullying in schools, which has been cited as a primary factor in many cases. One of the recent and comprehensive responses to bullying is The Bully Project, which brings together a number of organizations “catalyzing audience awareness to action with a series of tools and programs supported by regional and national partners.”

At the heart of The Bully Project is the film Bully, directed by award-winning documentarian Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony). The film examines bullying in America’s schools during the 2009-2010 school year through the vantage points of three teenagers: Kelby, a 16-year-old from Tuttle, Oklahoma, a former star athlete forced to leave her basketball and softball teams as a result of abuse from classmates and teachers following of her coming out as a lesbian; Alex, a sweet-natured a 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa who’s social awkwardness resulting from his Asperger’s Syndrome has made him a target for escalating bullying, and Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old from Yazoo, Mississippi who’s extensive battle with bullying forced her to take actions with drastic consequences. Bully also looks at the epidemic though David and Tina Long from Chattsworth, Georgia, whose 17-year-old son took his life in 2009 as a result of prolonged bullying, and Kirk and Laura Smalley from Perkins, Oklahoma, who formed the anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent in response to their 11-year-old son Ty taking his life as a result of bullying.

Hirsch and Alex were recently in LA testifying before the MPAA ratings board, addressing the on-going ratings controversy surrounding the film. I was able to sit down with Hirsch and discuss the problem of bullying in America, what he learned while making the film, and crafting Bully.

Jackson Truax: Your search to find kids and families to talk to was very organic, using a lot of online resources and getting help from the producers of “The Ellen Show.” Whether it was kids who were in the process of being bullied or parents who had lost kids to suicide as a result of bullying, were people generally willing to talk to you, and eager to open up their homes and their lives?

Lee Hirsch: Surprisingly, big time, yeah… People desperately need a voice on this issue. People wanted to tell those stories… With the family that we met through Ellen’s show, they just wanted to be heard. They wanted people to know what was happening to them, what they were dealing with. I think for kids, they wanted someone to acknowledge [them]. Someone shows up with a camera [that’s] come from somewhere else and says, “Your story matters.” It’s such a big deal for someone who’s been told that what they’re dealing with isn’t real, or doesn’t matter, or [they] don’t have a right to have it fixed. It’s hard stuff. So I think people were excited to talk and wanted to participate.

JT: I know you had shot footage of families that don’t appear in the final film. How did you ultimately decide whom to include?

LH: We held onto storylines the last week of the edit. Largely because I was clinging on… I just didn’t want to let go. That’s why you have an editor. That’s why you have a team to support you and work with you and to help craft the film into being. The stories that are in the film are the strongest narratives and tell the story most completely. It’s always hard. Because you are so invested in those other stories, too. It was very hard, very hard to make those phone calls to say, “I have to tell you that your story isn’t going to be in the film. You’re part of this family. You’re part of The Bully Project…” With one of the families of a boy from…the suburbs of Fort Worth, we went to the Lone Star film festival. We had him and his family [there]. When the film was over I said [to the audience], “I want to introduce you to somebody really special.” I showed eight minutes of his story. So we got to make them feel…like it wasn’t for nothing that they let filmmakers into their lives. But it’s very hard to let stories go.

JT: With this material, you could have made a 40-minute short to make it easier to view within a class period, or you could have made a ten-hour mini-series. How did you decide on a 94-minute feature?

LH: My first film was a feature doc. It’s a powerful format… I always conceived of it as a film. To me a film is…85 to 100 minutes. We’ve had people say, “Can you make it shorter? Can we do a 30 minute version?” So far my feeling is, “No.” It was really hard to make those 90 minutes do the job of telling the story.

JT: Looking at Alex, he’s heavily profiled throughout the film, at home, at school, on the bus, and extensively interviewed. In contrast, Kelby’s story is equally compelling, but she has far less screen time, and her narrative feels less in-depth. How did you decide how much screen time to give each subject?

LH: Alex is a central character, largely because we had three-hundred-and-sixty-degree access into his life. Kelby’s story is incredible, and as amazing as Kelby is, was testimonial… With Alex you’re seeing what’s happening. You’re in school with him. You’re on the bus with him. You’re in the cafeteria. With Kelby, she’s with her friends. She’s reminiscing. She’s in her room talking to her Dad. It’s not in the moment. It’s more constructed… You gravitate towards scenes. With Kelby, we just didn’t ultimately have…the opportunity to be in her school. If we were allowed in her school, she could have been the central character. So it’s about access and what are the fibers of a story.

JT: One of the things that the film talks about is that the Department of Education estimates that over 13 million kids are bullied every year. How is bullying defined by Department of Education, and how can anyone even begin to measure it?

LH: That’s a question for an expert… For me, bullying is if it’s repeated. If it’s intentional. There’s a differential of power. When you can’t make it stop, that’s bullying. Are the numbers greater than 13 million? I bet you they probably are. Are they global? Yes. Does a day go by where I don’t meet someone that [says] “I also was bullied?” No. So I think we’re scratching at the surface, and that a lot of people share this narrative.

JT: Looking at the teachers and administrations in the film, it’s easy for them to say, “We’re a public school. Budgets are being cut. We have limited resources.” How much of the problem do you think is financial, and how much was either a lack of understanding or desire to ignore or deal with the magnitude and consequences of this problem?

LH: Some of the poorest schools in this country have some of the best school climates. It’s not money. It’s commitment. It’s care. It’s “Do we value social and emotional learning as much as we do hard numbers testing?” I don’t believe money is an excuse… Bullying lives building to building, Principal by Principal. Assistant Principal by Assistant Principal. They build that culture that has empathy. That says it’s not cool to treat other people like crap. That values kindness. And those values become caked and baked into the fiber of the school… Seniors and juniors are modeling, saying, “This isn’t what we’re like here. We’re not about that.” It’s really school-by-school.

JT: Looking specifically at what’s in the film and happening at Alex’s school, the Assistant Principal and the administration seem well meaning enough, yet they’re continually ineffectual. Where is the disconnect?

LH: I think that there is a generational disconnect… What I hear over and over from administrators when we’re working with [the] Association of Secondary School Principals [and] the Teacher’s Union [is that] people in education need greater tools. We’re working with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to figure out how can we better equip administrators, teachers, school support staff, to have the tools to… evaluate, see it, and then engage effectively in it. Part of it is the desire to see it. Some would say, “We don’t have bullying in my school. I don’t see it.” I would argue that if you’re looking for it, you can walk into a school and you can see who’s getting bullied within five minutes.

JT: The film looks exclusively at bullying in the public school system. But it’s probably common knowledge that bullying is as prevalent at all kinds of parochial and “prep” schools, with different kinds of challenges present in dealing with it, often less budgetary and more a desire to look away from a persistent problem. Did you ever consider looking at any of those situations? Why did you decide against it?

LH: I just didn’t evaluate that level. I was just looking for stories and access. I didn’t make big, editorial decisions about private or public or rural or urban… The stories just sort of dictated the film.

JT: When President Obama made his anti-bullying PSA about a year-and-a-half ago, he said that our nation needs to “dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage” that exist without any short or long term consequences. How widespread is that mythos?

LH: I think that’s a beautiful statement. I think he’s right… I think it matters. If you’re being tortured, and you’re being told that that’s not valid, that’s crushing. That’s crushing enough to be tortured. For me, it’s a really important statement for the President to make. It’s exactly the kind of conversation that we want to have.

JT: When you were doing research and shooting the movie, what did you see, or hear or learn that surprised you the most?

LH: I learned a lot of things. One of the things that really surprised me was how many special needs kids were being bullied, like Alex… In so many cases, how ill-equipped people were with tools and response systems… They don’t have the training. They don’t have the deep well of support to turn to. And in the case of some of these tragedies, how callous some of these people can become in the face of it. How they can flip into defensive mode, and not take on the bigger question of, “Do kids feel safe in my community [and] in my school?..” I wasn’t surprised by the violence against Alex. I experienced that myself, so I knew what that was.

JT: Speaking of Alex and dealing with special needs kids, the film states that Alex was born very prematurely, and had some problems as a result. In addition, he comes off as being on the Autism Spectrum, but it’s never stated in the film. Is that true at all?

LH: He has Asperger’s. We made a conscious choice not to disclose it… I didn’t want anyone to say, “That’s why. That explains it. Of course he gets bullied.” I wanted him to be seen for who he was. And not let people put labels on top of [him]. Kids presented themselves as they wanted to be presented. And that’s important.

JT: Alex seems symptomatic of a kid who so desperately wants and needs to feel accepted and loved, that he doesn’t see these interactions as bullying, or want to speak out against it, either to the people bullying him or the adults who are supposed to be in charge. How do caring adults communicate to kids that what’s happening is wrong, and give them the tools to speak out about it?

LH: It’s that climate thing. Parents need tools. Parents need to be vigilant, need to be really thoughtful, need to be on top of it. If you think your kid is being bullied, if they let you in a little bit, imagine that it’s probably worse than what they’re saying. Don’t minimize it, when they speak to you. Have those tools. We’re going to be providing those on our website [thebullyproject.com], really strong resources for parents to fight on behalf on their kids if they are being bullied. How to write a letter. How to get your district policies. How to be a forceful, powerful advocate. That’s what folks need to be able to do.

JT: Have you seen Alex change at all as a result of telling his story and being in the film?

LH: You should have seen him today… He spoke himself to the MPAA board and [said], “This movie has to be seen. This language, this experience, this is my experience. I did this for other kids. I want there to be a change.” Alex was really beaten down when we met him. He’s a different kid today… Of course he was struggling. He was struggling to be seen, to be noticed. He had it rough… What’s awesome is to see Alex then and Alex now. Alex now, who’s coming to Los Angeles and speaking up in front of thirty film and TV executives. He can speak his mind. That’s awesome. And that’s what can happen when you’re not the victim of daily abuse.

JT: Many of the families, organizations, and schools involved in the film are still actively involved with the film and the cause. What can you share about Alex, Kelby, and Ja’Meya? How has this impacted their lives?

LH: Ja’Meya is doing really well. She’s gotten her GED. She’s less engaged with the film. I think because her story is really hard… But we talk all the time. She’s really proud of being in it. She’s trying to find her way… Kelby is doing great… She left school. She got her GED. She’s in community college.  She’s fighting for bullied kids. She’s speaking out. She’s also working hard, as young person trying to make it in this economy… Alex is fifteen now. He’s a freshman in high school. He’s getting all As and Bs, which is awesome. He feels like he’s got friends and people who are supporting him.

JT: If the film gets widely seen in theaters, in classrooms, on TV and DVD, what’s the ultimate impact you hope the film might have?

LH: I would like to significantly reduce or eliminate bullying in our time. And I think we can do it. Not just my film, but [through] other’s efforts [like] Lady Gaga, there are so many elements aligning right now that are saying “Enough.” And youth are saying, “Enough. We don’t want this to be our narrative. We can do better.” That’s exciting. And that’s real. I can feel it. I think we’re at a tipping point moment. I just hope that in some small way we’re a part of that.

Bully opens on March 30th. Check out the LiC review here.

4 Responses to “Director Lee Hirsch on his powerful new documentary “Bully””

  1. In the past two years in the northern New Jersey school district where I teach (minutes across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan) I have attened several workshops on ‘bullying,’ The subject is a priority these days with school administrators, and in addition to the lectures and discussions (and role playing) we’ve seen some short films on the topics. Looks like Lee Hirsch’s new critically-praised film would be in and of itself a perfect screening to occupy a single workshop session.

    As it I’ll be seeing it this coming weekend, and will avail myself further of this utterly fascinating interview. Great job!

  2. I’m glad to hear of the attention being paid to the issue in schools across the country. Hopefully the film can make it into these kinds of workshops and classrooms soon, as it deserves to be seen by all teachers, students, administrators, and parents alike. Please let me know what you think of the film when you see it, I’m excited to hear a teacher’s perspective on it. As always Sam, thanks for the kudos!

  3. As a teacher and a parent, Sam, you’ll definitely want to check this one out. It moved me even though I’m neither and it’s been years since I was in school.

    I didn’t realize until reading Jackson’s interview that it’s a persona subject for the director, but it makes total sense.

    I also loved the part where he was talking about how well Alex is doing now. He’s a sweet kid in the film and just in a miserable, shitty situation, but it sounds like he’s pulling through.

  4. I can’t wait to see it!

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