On Wednesday I had the opportunity to see Bully, the advocacy documentary about bullying that received so much press and controversy surrounding its MPAA rating. The film follows the lives of several families affected by bullying. Included are the stories of two young boys who have committed suicide. The stories in this film are tragic and heart-wrenching. My feelings on this movie, however, were incredibly complicated, primarily because the issues address in this movie are incredibly complicated, and filmmaker Lee Hirsch did not adequately unpack them.
Like any advocacy documentary, the issues here were oversimplified, and were painted in stark black and white relief. Also like any advocacy documentary, the film needed a hero and a villain. The hero here was clearly the bullied children, but it was in identifying the villain that I had my first serious complaint with this film. You might expect that the villain would be the bullies, the perpetrators of the abuse and violence. Yet the bullies’ screen time in the film were relegated to a few moments of shaky footage of “bullying caught in the act.” Not a single bully was interviewed. So, maybe the villain would be the bully’s parents, who presumably have not successfully been able to put a stop to the troublesome behavior. The parents, however, were not only not featured, they were scarcely even mentioned. I think I can recall a passing mention to the parents made by an attendee at a meeting with the school board, but that’s all. Not once was there any suggestion that parents should take a more proactive role in countering abusing behavior.
No, the problem with bullying, according to Hirsch and this documentary, is teachers. Teachers and administrators were positioned squarely as the primary bad guy in this film. The school staff members are portrayed as absolute idiots with their heads in the sand, refusing to act as they willfully ignore violence in their presence.
Now first, let me be clear. There were some horrendous actions and comments from teachers and administrators caught on film, and it’s easy to hate the individual people that Hirsch features. (I’m thinking of a moment when a vice principal catches one student bullying another, and she orders them to shake hands and apologize. When the bullied student is reluctant to shake hands with and apologize to the bully, the vice principal tells him that he is just as bad as the bully. These are the moments when I think, Are you not aware that there is a camera crew five feet away?!) However, they are only seen during these damning moments, saying something stupid or ignoring a problem. There was not a single substantive interview with a teacher or administrator in this film, and none of them were invited to tell their side of the story. We see administrators stammering that their hands are tied when confronted by an angry parent, but never do we follow up with them later and ask why. Perhaps they have a legitimate argument, and perhaps not. But by not giving them the opportunity to address the question, the audience is left to assume that Hirsch is intentionally omitting part of the narrative. At a time when teachers are already under attack and struggling to do their job within the constraints of an increasingly complex and constrictive system, I found it incredibly irresponsible to portray them so terribly and not give them the opportunity to respond. Also, considering the fact that every day we hear more and more stories of cyber bullying, it seems to be the case that a teacher’s power to stop bullying is increasingly insufficient.
In addition to the villainous portrayal of teachers and administrators, I also took issue with the angelic portrayal of the bullied children. Bullying is a terrible thing, and no one deserves to be bullied. We can all agree on that before even seeing the film. There is, however, no need to portray these children as faultless cherubs that can do no wrong. When we see footage of one student, Alex, 12, being bullied and physically attacked on the school bus, it seems fairly clear to me that Alex was intentionally instigating, at one point squeezing into a full seat with a bully, practically sitting on his lap. Does this mean that he deserved to be bullied? Obviously not. Is the bully’s reaction terrible and unjustified? Of course it is. But it does draw into question the supposedly impartial eye of the documentarian.
An even more glaring example of this involved Ja’Meya, 14, who, after been bullied for years, took her mothers gun on a school bus, pulled it out, and began pointing it at students as she walked up and down the aisle shouting. The student was disarmed and no shots were fired, but Ja’Meya was charged with 45 felony counts, though the charges were later dropped. The narrative surrounding Ja’Meya in the movie revolves around the disproportionate punishment of minors, and the cautionary tale of what happens when a bully goes too far. But at no point does either Ja’Meya or her mother face the camera and talk about why her actions were terrible, unjustifiable, and she would never do it again. Obviously bullying is terrible, but it seemed it would have been appropriate to take a moment to address the issue of children bringing guns to school. But no. This conversation was conspicuously absent from the film, as Hirsch seemed continually reluctant to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of a bullied child, or any form of complexity to the issue.
Prior to seeing this film, I read an article by Slate.com’s Emily Bazelon, who has done a great deal of reporting on bullying throughout the last several months. She points out that Tyler Long, the 17-year-old who tragically committed suicide after being bullied, also had elements of his story omitted, specifically his mental health history. Apparently Tyler had been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome, none of which is mentioned in the movie. When Bazelon asked Hirsch why he chose not to include this information, in addition to other details about Tyler’s history, he said that he “thought the film would be more powerful without it.” We may never know if Tyler’s diagnoses played a role in his tragic death, but by not including them, Hirsch further exemplifies his willingness to spin facts to suit his message, which in this case seems to be that bullying leads directly to suicide.
This notion, which crops up frequently in the film, is one of the most difficult ideas to wrestle with. On the one hand, bullying has certainly contributed to if not directly led to suicides in the past. On the other hand however, by promoting this narrative, what message does it send to children who are bullied? What does it tell them when we take children who have ended their own lives and make films that romanticize their stories? Unfortunately, here I cannot attempt to make a determination. It seems to be a lose-lose situation in which we want to address the issue while not acknowledging or promoting it, and I’ll leave it to others to wrestle with the ethics of that particular dilemma.
There were characters in the film that were incredible. There is Kelby, the 16-year-old lesbian, who struggles with thoughts of suicide and discusses how she finds strength and solace in her friends. There is the friend of Ty Smalley, the 11-year-old who ended his own life, who describes Ty as “the coolest kid” he knows, and is awed by his bravery as he tolerated his classmates’ cruelty. This friend (whose name I did not get) also discusses how he used to be a bully, but then changed his ways. These and others are the stories that are truly inspiring, the stories that could bring hope to children that are bullied, and could potentially get through to would-be bullies, and, in these scenes, the movie soars.
On many levels, this film was a success. I have no problem with advocacy filmmaking, and this particular example is well assembled and makes its point clearly. However, when a filmmaker is so willing to oversimplify a complex issue and warp and omit facts to make his point, the audience is forced to question his authenticity as a documentarian and consider him as a propagandist. The bullying problem in our society has reached a critical point, and something needs to be done. We desperately need a movie that will unpack these complicated issues – that will not only interview the bullied children and their families, but will also interview the bullies to find out what causes them to do what they do. A movie that will interview the parents of the bullies and find out what role they play, and potentially hold them accountable. A movie that will interview the teachers and the administrators and get to the bottom of why they are unable or unwilling to act. We desperately need that movie, but unfortunately, this wasn’t it.