Bully, director Lee Hirsch’s riveting look at the effects of bullying in American schools, has already become one of the most talked-about films of the year, thanks largely in part to a very public battle between The Weinstein Company and the Motion Picture Association of America over the film’s content. At first intending to refuse official classification and release the film unrated with no edits, the filmmakers eventually compromised, agreeing to remove the offensive language from some scenes while leaving a crucial point in the film completely untouched. The MPAA responded by granting the film a PG-13 rating, and the edited version of Bully will be hitting theaters today.
Bully has its share of controversial and incendiary content, but very little is related to the language used in the film, and none of it presented in a gratuitous matter. Where the film means to spark discussion is the shockingly authentic footage of real kids experiencing horrific treatment at the hands of their peers, and the administrators who turn a blind eye to the problem. It’s an epidemic, one that the film intends to face head-on by pulling back the curtain and shining a light on this very dark corner of our society.
We recently had an opportunity to speak with the film’s producer, Cynthia Lowen, about her experiences working side-by-side with Hirsch and getting to know the extraordinary families featured in Bully.
Thanks very much for taking a few minutes to chat with us this morning, we really appreciate your time.
Oh, absolutely. We appreciate you guys giving us some more attention, it’s great.
First things first, how did you come to be involved with the project?
Lee and I had worked together on some other projects, and we’d been talking about making this film for some time. He had been bullied when he was in high school, and we started sensing that there was a “tipping point” moment occurring. On YouTube, kids were posting videos about their experiences, parents writing in about news stories that touched on bullying, hundreds of comments from kids and parents and grandparents and teachers, and we started to realize there was sort of this groundswell taking place, people giving voice to this issue that I think had been largely invisible for a long time, or I think just largely seen as the norm.
So at that time, around April 2009, we decided “this is the moment, let’s do this.” We both invested everything we could and got started, got on an airplane. One of the first things we did, we were able to get access to the Sioux City Community School District, and from there we knew we were going to be able to follow a school year there, so that was sort of how it evolved.
How did you decide what families to include in the project?
It was really a totally organic process. The stories came to us in all different ways. Some people we heard of through small local news stories, like the Longs, and Kirk and Laura Smalley, and Ja’Meya. We were actually aware of Ja’Meya’s situation because we saw all the news around the boy that had tackled her, bravely, who took the gun from her on the bus. But we suspected there was another side to that story that wasn’t really being told. We met Alex obviously when we began filming in Sioux City, and we filmed with about twenty other families all over the country, from Minneapolis to outside of Atlanta to Texas.
In the end, the five kids and families who are in the film are each included because we felt like they each really spoke to different facets of bullying, and spoke to families going through different experiences, and that could help us tell a story of bullying in America that felt complete.
The families you chose to document seem to come from smaller towns. Do you find that bullying is more prevalent in those smaller communities, or is it just a matter of these families being the ones you chose to feature?
No, we didn’t set out and say “we’re going to depict people in small towns.” Sioux City is not such a small town. It may look small in some of the footage, but it’s actually a good-sized midwestern city. I don’t think that bullying is worse in small towns or rural towns, but I think there are ways where it may play out differently. We filmed in a very wealthy school, a very urban school, in Minneapolis, where the bullies felt like they had total impunity. Their parents provided them with their lawyer’s cards, so whenever the principal tried to discipline them for bullying, they just passed out their lawyer’s business cards.
I think that’s something you wouldn’t find, necessarily, in a school in a more middle-class community. I don’t think it’s at all worse, I think it can be different. I think one thing that can be different between being bullied as a young person in a small community, versus someone who lives in a city like New York, I think if you live in New York, there’s more community you might be able to find that you fit into. There are opportunities in larger cities to maybe become part of a dance team, or become a musician, or there may be certain places you find that you fit in if you’re being bullied. But that said, I think it takes place in every-sized town in this country.
Certainly. One of the things that surprised me most, when watching the film, was how much of the physical abuse was actually captured on film. Were you surprised that some of these kids were willing to do these things in view of the camera?
It was surprising, but I wouldn’t say shocking. These kids had been bullying Alex for years, they had bullied him when there were adults around, they had bullied him on the bus when the bus driver had been present. I think that they didn’t think there would be any consequences, I don’t think they saw us as authority figures, and I think they also got used to us being around. We were in Alex’s school all the time. They also didn’t know what we were making a film about, and they didn’t know we were following Alex.
One of the things we really did to protect him from kids saying “oh, they’re following you” and drawing negative attention to him from his peers, is that we filmed everything. We filmed bake sales, fire drills, wrestling matches, you name it. And I think through that process of just being present all the time, they really just got used to us. I think what we captured, that’s sort of what school looks like. Not just for the kids, but I think for the administrators as well.
Most documentary filmmakers are there to observe, but in Alex’s case the decision was made to get involved personally because of the escalating bullying that he was receiving on a regular basis. Can you talk about the decision to come forward with that?
We cared immensely, and still do care immensely, about Alex. You can only make a film like this when there’s trust between the kids and families that you’re working with, and the filmmakers. We knew that, on the one hand, we had a responsibility to depict what bullying is in such a way that people would be able to see the film and walk away and say “this is a serious issue, we cannot look the other way, this isn’t just kids being kids and we all have to commit to doing something about this.”
On the other hand, our commitment is absolutely to the kids and families who we’re working with, to make sure that they’re protected. We talked to Alex all the time, every day, about how he’s doing, how he’s feeling, is he okay, what we’re doing with this film and why we’re making this film. And he was really a partner in that process with us. So we knew that a) we were able to depict what bullying was, and b) we had to protect him, and that bus ride where that kid is wailing on him was the last time he rode that bus. When we made this film, we felt really connected to the people in the film and their experiences, and felt like we absolutely had to be responsible in that relationship with them.
I think one of the things that borders on the unbelievable is that, after showing the footage to the school administrators, there’s a scene with the vice principal and Alex’s parents, and the school seems to be in complete denial about how serious the issue is. Did you find it frustrating to present that evidence and just have it brushed off?
Yes, absolutely. It was astounding. I think they eventually pulled some kids in to talk to them, but… it was a school where, if five dollars went missing the police were called and the principals are running around the school frantic, like a five-alarm fire. However, when a child is consistently being hit and assaulted, it was seen as just a norm of behavior for people that age.
I think those were kind of the values in that school. I don’t think it’s that they were bad people, but I think they just didn’t necessarily see bullying as the kind of priority that I think parents want it to be seen as. As a culture, I think we expect bullying to be taken seriously, we expect assault to be taken at least as seriously as when there’s five dollars missing.
Absolutely. I think another scene that really speaks to that is the scene where the vice principal forces the two boys to shake hands after they’ve been fighting. The one kid is just furious, because you can tell he’s been at the mercy of this other kid for so long, and the vice principal is oblivious to that.
I think one of the things that scene really says, at least to me, is that bullying situations are not just conflicts. It’s not just a fight, it’s not just like “suck it up and be friends and put this behind you.” Usually, these things have been going on for a really long period of time. If kids have tried to get help and the administrators or the adults that they’ve gone to have not taken it seriously, and have not made sure that whatever action they’re taken has actually remedied the situation, they become completely frustrated and completely demoralized. And I think they feel like, “why even tell, because it’s not going to help, and if i do say something it may just get worse.”
And I think that sentiment, that level of frustration, is shared by millions of kids who are bullied. Administrators really need to understand what bullying is. Bullying is not a fight, it happens consistently over time. It’s an imbalance of power, and the target does not have the ability to make it stop. And that’s why it’s the responsibility of administrators, of all of us who are there witnessing it. That principal, I don’t think she was a bad person, I just think she was totally unequipped. She didn’t have the tools, she didn’t actually really understand bullying, she didn’t want to take the time to really unravel what was going on in this situation.
And it takes time. Often, when a bullying situation finally reaches an administrator, it’s because the target finally turned around and decked the kid who’s been bullying him for three years. And then what happens? The target ends up being suspended for three days because he finally said “look, I’ve had enough.” I think if the adult takes time to really unravel “what’s been going on here, who’s doing what, what is this dynamic,” it’s complicated. It really does take a commitment of time and energy and thought to figure out how to remedy each situation, and they’re all going to be different.
Certainly. The film has come under quite a bit of publicity due to the controversy over the rating. I was fortunate enough to screen the unrated version of the film, but now that the edits have been and the movie will be released as PG-13, do you find it frustrating when you compare a film like this to a comedy with a lot of sexual innuendo, or an action film with tons of violence? These movies are getting a PG-13 rating with no questions asked, but your film struggled because of six uses of a particular word. Do you feel there’s a major discrepancy there?
Yes, it’s ridiculous. It’s a total contradiction in terms of our values. Where is this language really necessary? It’s necessary when you’re trying to depict a real problem that’s taking place in our middle schools and high schools in this country. When you have so much violence and so much language and so much sexuality that’s out there to sensationalize or celebrate, it’s very frustrating when a film like this gets an R rating for exactly the opposite reasons. We included it not to sensationalize it, but to say that no one should be saying this to a 12-year-old every day when they get on the school bus.
Have you and Lee been in touch with the families since you’ve begun screening the film?
Absolutely. I just saw Alex’s mom for a screening with the National Education Association, which was Tuesday night in D.C. We see them quite a bit, they’re all doing really, really well. Alex and his family actually moved out of Sioux City, and are now living about an hour away from the Johnsons in Oklahoma. The Longs are doing well, we’re sort of all like a big family. We’re all in touch, and all the families are really connected to each other, so they all have their own individual friendships, separate from Lee and I. They’re always talking to each other, and they’ve become friends through this process.
How is everyone adjusting to all the publicity?
There’s really no way to prepare, or know how it’s going to be, or what it’s going to be like. Alex is kind of a complete ham. (laughs) So everyone is surprised. Alex is adjusting quite well. I think everyone feels like they’ve been given an amazing opportunity to shed light on this issue, and I think it’s hard for all the families in the film, knowing they have this opportunity to raise awareness and to have a voice, and I think the thing that’s hard for them is knowing that there are so many other families out there who are still feeling isolated, still feeling alone, still feeling like they don’t have anyone in their corner, and who are struggling to protect their children in their schools. So I think, in a way, it’s bittersweet.
Alright, I’ve got one more question, I know I’ve taken up quite a bit of your time already. What’s the biggest thing you want audiences to take away from the film?
The biggest thing is probably the simplest thing, that every single person who sees this film has the capacity to intervene when they see bullying, when they hear it. And that can be as a parent, that can be as a teacher, that can be as a middle-school person, or that can be as a member of your community. I think we can see this film and see parts of ourselves in this film, I think kids can see this film and say “I know I have an Alex in my school, and the next time I see him getting punched, I’m going to say something.” Or kids who may be bullying may see themselves in this film and say, “I don’t want to be that kid, I’m not going to be that kid anymore.”
I think teachers and administrators can also be aware of the ways in which maybe they’ve not taken the time to really address an issue, or when they’ve closed their office doors and pretended they couldn’t hear what was going on outside. And I think parents can really see an opportunity to have an open conversation with their kids and figure out how to work together to really solve this. I think everyone can see this film and see, in their own lives, ways to stand up.
Thanks very much, Cynthia. I really enjoyed the film. Coming from a small town and being a little bit… we’ll say “different” in middle school and high school, there was quite a bit of material that resonated with me. I think this is one of the most powerful and important films to come out in a very long time, and I wish you guys all the success in the world.
Thank you so much, Brent. I really appreciate it.
No problem at all. Have a good day and thanks again.
Alright, take care.
Bully is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more information, visit thebullyproject.com.