It is estimated that over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. The new documentary Bully puts a human face on that frightening statistic, with an unflinching look at just how deeply bullying effects kids and their families. By telling the stories of 12-year-old Alex from Iowa, 16-year-old Kelby from Oklahoma, 14-year-old Ja’Meya from Mississippi, and the families of 17-year-old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Smalley, who both lost their sons to suicide after relentless bullying, the film captures a growing movement to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, filmmaker Lee Hirsch talked about how the idea for this documentary developed out of having been bullied as a kid, wanting to give a voice to kids who are suffering, the process for deciding which kids and families to focus on in the film, what he found most upsetting about the problem of bullying today, how the administrators feel about their portrayal, how frustrating and upsetting the decision for the R rating is, and the goal of having one million kids see the film in theaters. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Collider: How did the idea for this come about? Was there a particular story that sparked it, or was it a series of stories?
LEE HIRSCH: The genesis for the film began before the media frenzy around the subject. I was bullied as a kid, so it’s something that I carried. As I became a filmmaker and realized that I had a voice, who better to speak for than kids that are bullied? It’s such a place where you feel like nobody is listening and you can’t communicate what’s happening. So, I wanted to use that storytelling ability and the podium of filmmaking to give a voice to those kids and try to make a difference. And as we started looking at making a film, my producer and I realized how much tragedy and heartbreak there was. You start to notice something when you’re really thinking about it. More than anything, that just cemented our will to do the film.
Did the process of making the film bring things up for you that you had to deal with yourself? Did it make you revisit those times in your life when you had been bullied?
HIRSCH: Yeah. I thought to myself that once I had made the film, I would have been done with it. I was really wrong about that. I’m more deeply in it than ever before, in a way. Absolutely, I processed stuff. And people still tell me things that happened that I don’t remember. A certain amount is just on perma-block, but I’m certainly revisiting it and engaging in it. So many people are touched by it and so many people want to share their stories. Each time requires you having to revisit your piece of it and help them process. I do a lot of that, and it’s definitely intense.
How did you decide which kids and families you wanted to focus on, in the film?
HIRSCH: A big part of it was getting access. Once we’d found and built this relationship with Sioux City, Iowa, and the school district and school board, and they allowed us to film there, that dictated other things. Certainly, Alex’s story came out of being able to be in that school. That was just a breakthrough. 99% of schools were like, “Absolutely not! We don’t have a bullying problem, and we certainly let you film it, if we did.” That was just such a big piece of it. Really, we filmed many stories that aren’t in the film. There were some amazing kids and families. The stories really dictated the film. Some of it was breaking news, like the more tragic stories that we cover in the film. They came in really organic ways, and the locations emerged in organic ways. I find the film deeply, weirdly patriotic. I can’t really explain why, but it has this Americana to it and these really noble, really powerful, really strong, beautiful families that are really of the heartland. It’s interesting, the way it fell together, but I’m really happy with the way it fell together.
Have you thought about using some of the stories you didn’t use in the film on the DVD?
HIRSCH: Yeah, I think we’ll definitely do that.
How much footage did you have, and how long did it take you to put everything together?
HIRSCH: It took almost a year to cut. We had 300+ hours of footage. I shot for 99 or 110 days. There were so many shoot days, it was crazy. We had a great team of editors and we worked really hard, and it came together.
Once you got more involved and looked into this deeper and started to get to know these kids and their families, did it feel like you also had to do these kids who had suffered at the hands of others justice and that you weren’t just making a film anymore?
HIRSCH: Oh, absolutely, yeah. People say, “Why didn’t you make a film about bullies?,” and I say, “Because they have enough of a voice in society.” I felt like I wasn’t trying to solve the problem or present answers. I didn’t want to dictate false remedies. I wanted to just be really real and be that voice. The relationships with each of the families really mattered, and still matter. They are all each other’s family now. It’s been really rewarding to see those relationships and to be a part of that.
Obviously, this is something that needs to be shown unfiltered, to people who aren’t aware of how severe the problem really is. When the film was given an R rating, how did you react to that? How difficult is it to deal with that, when the people who you’re most trying to effect with this can’t actually see the film?
HIRSCH: It’s really frustrating and really upsetting. Alex, who’s now 15, came all the way from where his family is now living in Oklahoma and mustered the courage to speak to the entire MPAA ratings board and basically said, “This is my story, and the story of millions of kids like me, and many that are even younger, and you’re saying that I can’t even see my own story? This is real, and this is the way kids talk.” Look at some of the films that have been rated PG and PG-13, that have so much violence and gore. Gunner Palace, which is a great film, has 56 uses of the word “fuck.” We barely have four that are prominent, and we’re getting an R rating. That just seems so unfair. Alex’s father, Harvey Weinstein and Alex walked out of that boardroom with tears in their eyes. Harvey Weinstein was crying. That’s how much is at stake here. They were so devastated about that decision, and we all are. We’re just going to fight it as best as we can.
In everything that you learned from observing what was going on, and in talking to these kids and their families, was there anything that most surprised you or shocked you, in regard to how the problem is now?
HIRSCH: I certainly think that cyberbullying just changes it completely. When I was bullied, I could go home and it would stop. Now, you can go home and get a text, or you can put up a YouTube video and 200 people say horrible crap, or someone has launched a website about you. That stuff is really terrifying. It’s not really a big part of our film, but it’s certainly a big piece of the dynamic and it’s absolutely a difference from when I was growing up. The other thing that I think was really shocking was the attitudes of people. Tyler Long’s family so gently asked to have this community conversation, and so beautifully and graciously just wanted to be with their community and try to unwrap what had happened with this tragedy, but the school board and school district banned everyone associated with the schools from even participating in the conversation. That kind of stuff just makes me really angry. Those are some of the things that were really upsetting, in the making of the film.
Obviously, when you make a documentary, you’re supposed to be somewhat removed from your subjects. What finally led to your decision to show Alex’s parents what was going on with him? Was there something specific that prompted you to step in and do that?
HIRSCH: Oh, absolutely! It just reached a point where it was terrifying. I had seen the extent to which it was terrifying, and he was not safe. He was in danger, and we had to intervene. At that point, there really was no question. We had to break the line. It was the only thing to do.
Since they’re not always shown in the best light in the film, how did the administrators feel about this whole experience and how they’re portrayed?
HIRSCH: We have a really great relationship with Sioux City and the school district. They’ve been incredible, and they’ve stood by this film. We had a free community screening and 1,600 people came, and the principals were there, a lot of the kids were there, and all of the administrators were there, including Kim Lockwood, who’s portrayed in the film. I think it’s been really difficult for her. I think she’s been deeply effected. At the same time, she had the courage to stand in front of the community, after the screening, and literally be like, “I’m really sorry. I got it wrong, and I have to do better. We, as educators, have to do better. We owe it to our kids.” That’s the kind of transformation that this film can achieve. It can get folks that have been at this for awhile, maybe without a lot of tools or empathy, or who choose not to see it, to re-evaluate where they stand on this and figure out how they can do a better job. Our goal, outside of releasing the film, is to build powerful tools. We have 25 national partners to help us really transform the lives of millions of kids, in hundreds of communities. We’re talking to whole school districts and whole cities about seeing the film together. We have an educational partner, Facing History, Facing Ourselves, that’s developed incredible curriculum, and they’re going to be doing webinars and site visits and workshops with these districts. We have really cool stuff that we’re going to do, and that’s exciting.
As a filmmaker, where do you go from here? Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
HIRSCH: I’m really engaged in this, right now. I don’t quite know what’s next, but it will be something, for sure. Right now, we have a lot of work to do, to get this out there. We set a goal of one million kids seeing this film in theaters, and we’re going to keep working on that. That’s where I’m at, for right now. We’ll see what’s next.