Lee Hirsch is a filmmaker whose works provide a strong voice for those that can’t otherwise be heard. His 1993 debut, the short The Last and Only Survivor of Flora, intimately captured the memories of a 94 year-old Polish Jew; his first feature, the acclaimed Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, celebrated the musicians who fought apartheid in song. His latest, Bully, stands strong for the down-trodden and abused children in America’s high-school (though the scourge of bullying is certainly universal). Attending the Melbourne International Film Festival, Hirsch sat down with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss the film and the tide of social change he hopes it will engender.
You have been very open about the victimisation you endured at school. How did the experience shape who you are today and lead to the work you do?
I think I shut it out for a long time. I think it drew me to the kinds of movies I make. It drew me to activism, to stories about the underdog. I got out of school really quickly and didn’t go to college for a whole year, instead just throwing myself into film which is where I found some meaning.”
In a nation with an estimated 13million bullied children, how did the production zero in on the subjects that made it into the film?
The biggest breakthrough was getting access to a school. The school came first; having a place where we could film and be in the hallways, be allowed in the principal’s office and in the lives of the teachers and students was the hardest to source. When we got the ‘yes’ in Iowa it was a huge breakthrough.
And the decision to focus on Alex?
Alex (pictured, right, with Hirsch) we met on the first day and somehow we just felt he was bullied, though a lot of kids in that school were dealing with it. Other kids we found because their parents had written in to websites or posted YouTube videos about what they were going through. We found Ja’Meya’s story just be searching Google News.
How did the school in particular and the community in general react when the bullying that took place there was exposed?
I think they have been pretty amazing in standing by this movie and standing by their choice to open themselves up to potentially be embarrassed. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to let people see your dirty laundry, so to speak. It sparked a lot of intense conversation in the district, in the school community. At one point there was a full-page editorial in the newspaper in Sioux City; a Sunday paper, front page, top to bottom, that said ‘Bullying Must Stop’ and that that attitude must start here, in our town. I think it’s been cathartic for them. I think they are happy that it is not in theatres anymore (laughs).
One of the saddest moments in Bully is when Alex’s sister reveals she is being singled-out for abuse just for being his sister. It destroys the sanctuary Alex has as a member of a tight, loving family.
The family unit is so important, it is all a lot of these kids have. I love The Libbys, I think they are an amazing family. But, yeah, some of those scenes are just heartbreaking. For me, that scene between Alex and his mum, when he says, “If they are not my friends, then what friends do I have?”; wow. Alex is such a good kid, so funny and likable, it is really emotional to watch him. Sorry, I got off topic, but my point is adults sometimes just don’t know what to do. Alex has Aspbergers, which complicates things; he is IAP, which requires a whole plan to cope with. His life is made up of all these intricacies that is very hard to navigate.
When Alex’s parents become aware of his suffering, their visit to the school leads to the film’s most infuriating scene.
That experience of families going to schools and saying, “This is happening to my kid and what are we going to do about it?” and then getting brushed off is really intense and really real. On our website are a lot of resources to help parents navigate that.
I suppose the greatest result would be for Bully to become a kind of time-capsule piece, a document of a world we once lived in but, thankfully, doesn’t exist anymore. Is that reality closer?
Yeah, I think we are getting there. I think the notion that we have, over time, put things behind us (is a positive). At some point, mankind figured out that it was probably best that we didn’t drink and drive. Generally speaking, most people adhere to that; next it will be texting and driving. Domestic abuse is something that was very similar to bullying, at a certain point, where victims thought they were alone and that no one would back them, but society changed for the better. I see bullying taking the same course.
The film makes the point that if one person stands up, others will be inspired and soon “we will have an army”. What are the first steps the individual and the community can take to start fighting against bullying?
If you’re a student, look around. See the kid who is isolated and reach out to them and take a stand. For communities, I think it is important to create conversation on the topic of bullying. We are working with the US Conference of Mayors to facilitate town-wide conversations. Hold the Town Hall and get educators, experts, kids and ask these questions. Screen the film together and then ask these questions. Just talking about it is a really big first step.
Visit the website The Bully Project for further information regarding anti-bullying initiatives. Contact Village Roadshow on 02 9552 8600 for information on how to arrange community screenings of Bully.