“ Actors: Ja'Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Lona Johnson, Bob Johnson, Alex Libby / Director: Lee Hirsch / Writers: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen / Producers: Lee Hirsch, Cindy Waitt, Cynthia Lowen, Sarah Foudy / Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay / Released: 12 Feb 2013 / Run Time: 98 minutes „
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Shot in a style similar to Nick Broomfield's early documentaries such as "Soldier Girls" and "Chicken Ranch", in that there is no narration with the subjects of this documentary instead being followed and generally being left to tell their own story, which certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience, especially with no title cards to fill in the background information on his subjects it can also at the same time unfortunately make for a frustrating viewing experience.
Focusing on five different cases of bullying over the case of the film including the openly gay Kelby, whom has been outcast in her town due to her sexual orientation and Mississippi teenager Ja'Meya, whose bullying experiences lead her to pulling a loaded gun on her school bus. Amongst these cases aswell is Ty and Tyler whose bullying experience sadly resulted in them both committing suicide rather than continue to endure the bullying anymore.
However the one case which the film chooses to follows most closely is that of Alex, who is your stereotypical bullying target, due to him being a socially awkward loner, who throughout the film is showing on the receiving end of both physical and verbal abuse, starting with a student responding to Alex's cheerful quip of "Your my buddy" with a stream of abuse which includes threats of violating him with a broom handle! In fact so much is Alex targeted over the course of the film that the film makers are finally are forced to step in and alert both Alex's parents and his head mistress of what is happening to him, which is also one of the few times that we actually see the schools trying to counter their bullying problem, while the rest of the time it seems like the parents can only make fruitless efforts to try and highlight the issue of bullying, while members of the school board uncomfortably make excuses for their lack of action.
While Alex is a great showcase for the sort of bullying which the film is trying to highlight, he is far from the most interesting case here, with perhaps alittle too much time dedicated to his happy home life and general bullying footage. Sadly as a result of this we get to see less of the case which are more interesting to watch such as Kelby, whose bullying is not limited to just her fellow students, but also comes from teachers aswell, were she comments that she has been forced to sit through classes, were teachers have been preaching about "Fags burning in hell". Still the scenes with Kelby are certainly amongst the strongest her, as she remains determined to not let them beat her while equally and quite rightfully so feeling no shame for her lifestyle choices, even if it has resulted in her being treated like an outcast in her hometown.
Equally interesting here are the scenes with a former self-confessed bully who saw the error of his ways, which seem to link the reasons for bully's behaviour being less about the much assumed broken home life or low self esteem, but instead more rooted in the desire to be popular and main that status by picking on those further down the social pecking order. It is a fascinating insight and one which helps give a full insight into the roots of the issue, even if the scene is so clumsily dropped in, that to the more casual viewer could just as easily be overlooked.
While seemingly set out with many big ideas on exposing the shortcomings of how bullying is being dealt with, the end result is sadly one which left me feeling largely indifferent. More so when the film has no real heart, thanks largely to Hirsch keeping his distance from his subjects and firmly keeping himself in the position of an observer. Equally frustrating is the documentary style which Hirsch has chosen to use here, as a narration would have been sorely welcome, especially with the film being low on facts and more a focus on personal experiences of his cases looked at over the film, which does in many ways prevent the films from being as hard hitting as I expected, while leaving me with the feeling that my time would have been better spent watching videos from "It Gets Better Project", which honestly does more for the cause than I felt this film did, even if its focus is more on helping the youth of the LGBT community. Perhaps if used as a lecture tool this documentary would be more effective or just by adding a much needed narrator would benefit this documentary greatly. Until then it remains at best a talking point for dinner parties but far from the must see documentary you would hope it to be.
Bully is a 2011 documentary directed by Lee Hirsch that premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary follows 5 students in schools across the U.S. and their lives in relation to bullying.
Alex is in middle school (ages 11-14), one of those awkward-looking kids who manage to inherit the most dominant facial features of both his parents. He lives with said parents and four younger siblings. He has a bit of a playful rivalry with his younger sister but overall is a decent, average kid. This all changes when he starts taking the bus to school. Now, the awkwardness of public transport may be repressed by most adults as soon as they get their own set of car keys, but for a young teenager the social hierarchies inherent in 'taking the bus' are something of a cause for anxiety. Alex tries his best to off-set this by trying to befriend someone at the bus stop on his very first day - a boy who then threatens to stab him if he ever speaks to him again. This is only the beginning of the bad. Throughout the documentary Alex is abused - there is no other word for it - by his peers. They openly, gleefully torture him, stabbing him with protractors or just choking him for fun. This is very painful to watch. It's made even worse by the fact that no one does anything about it when Alex asks for help.
Alex's mother is run ragged with concern, but it's obvious she doesn't know how to show it or act upon it. It's Alex's father, though, who most surprised me. He just didn't seem to care at all that his son was coming up to him and saying that bullies were making his life a living hell, in fact, all he was concerned about was that, "If you keep getting picked on, they'll pick on your sister when she moves up to middle school next year." With his obnoxious sister chiming in, "Yeah, I already get picked on 'cos of you... people think you're creepy." As his sister is only 11 or 12 she could be excused from being so horrid, but the fact their father didn't interrupt to correct her says a lot about his own ignorance. I couldn't believe people could be such bad parents in the modern age of self-help guides and childcare classes. Read a basic childcare book! This is your child's life!
However, it's the school principle who deserves a special place within the Hall of Fame for the truly ineffective. When Alex's mother, Alex and younger siblings (though I don't think they were there for their input) visit the principle, she simply writes it off. She says she has ridden in the buses before and the students behave "as good as gold". Yes, because people under observation behave exactly the same as they would were they not being observed. Much like a documentary, actually...
Kelby is a young woman living in Oklahoma. Kelby is different from other girls. Her parents consider her to be "gay", and the life of a "gay" person in Oklahoma is a battle. "People would ignore us," Kelby's mother said, "People we saw everyday of their lives... people whose kids we taught in Sunday School, they suddenly started blanking us."
Kelby spends a lot of time in her room, looking at all her sports trophies she won over the years. "It should be my name up there," she said, in relation to the school basketball team. "But they'd never let a girl in."
It's pretty obvious by her attitude and the way she presents herself that Kelby is somewhere along the T spectrum of LGBT, but when her parents don't even differentiate between "gay" and "lesbian", there is little hope of them noticing let alone understanding this. However, as parents go, they are supportive of Kelby, even though they seem religious people (they taught the town Sunday School for many years). As for bullying, Kelby explains, "When I sit down in class... everyone moves their desks away." Her peers don't speak to her, her teachers don't interact with her, and she has no friends or colleagues in the community - and neither do her parents.
Kelby's parents suggest to her if they should move away to a big city where the school students may be more accepting, but Kelby refuses. "I want to change their attitudes. I don't want them to know that they've beaten me."
However, despite her strength and her tight circle of like-minded friends (including her girlfriend), Kelby had tried to take her own life three separate times before the documentary began.
In Mississippi we meet the mother of a young girl called Ja'Meya. The introduction to Ja'Meya's situation is a chilling one, as Ja'Meya's mother talks about her almost in the past tense. At the start of the documentary, Ja'Meya was in psychiatric care. Her mother, the only parent raising Ja'Meya, tells us how Ja'Meya pulled a gun on a school bus after being bullied for months. Though Ja'Meya didn't harm anyone, she was arrested on several counts of kidnapping and attempted murder. In Ja'Meya's case, the documentary follows the journey to see if the felony charges will be dropped against her and she can return home.
Ty Smalley's story is told through his parents, Kirk and Laura. Kirk and Laura set up a foundation called Stand for the Silent after Ty took his own life at the age of 11. The documentary takes a look at their lives after their son's death. Ty was bullied for over 2 years, and when he finally fought back against his bully, the school suspended him and he hanged himself from a tree. Ty's friend explains how he used to bully people when he was younger, but stopped when he realised he could just be friendly with everyone instead. He takes the camera crew up to where he and Ty had their secret base, but refuses to go any further, knowing Ty wouldn't have wanted the world to know where it was. Ty's father was close behind, picking flowers to lay there.
The story of Tyler Oakley is also told post-posthumously. As a seventeen year old, he was bullied for being quiet and un-athletic. He hanged himself in the closet of his bedroom. Tyler's family live on to campaign for harsher sentencing in place for bullying in Tyler's memory.
Tyler's story was especially difficult as at the time of filming, his family still lived in the house where he ended his life. They converted his bedroom into a study, as no-one could bear to sleep there, but his mother showed the camera crew the exact place he ended his life, and that they have to live with seeing it every day. I never realised before that the ramifications of suicide just go on and on for those left behind.
One thing all the victims interviewed had in common is that they were happy children. Endless reams of family video show embarrassing dancing, huge smiles and generally warm and fuzzy memories. That those same children could grow up and become so withdrawn, so angry and, in three cases, wish to end their own lives, is tantamount to the suffering they have gone through. It is also the fault of a poor education system that places bureaucracy above the happiness of its students. In one clip, a school principle encourages a bully to shake hands with the boy he had just been beating up. The bully offers his hand, but the bullied boy is reluctant. The principle forces him to, then lets the bully go ("You did the right thing,") and then berates the bullied boy's reluctance, chiding him for not wanting to be friends with the boy that abused him: "Maybe if you shake hands you will one day be friends, but not shaking hands you're like him." The boy replies in one of the best lines of the documentary: "We were friends. Then he started bullying me."
Throughout the documentary, authority figures including parents and teachers show a distinct apathy and misunderstanding of what it means to be bullied. Alex's father even goes on to blame his son for not standing up for himself, saying, "Stop acting like a punching bag." It's no wonder people get into trouble for standing up for themselves, like Ja'Meya or Ty Smalley, and have to suffer the consequences because of adults who should know better and intervene.
Alex summarises his bottled-up torment in one line: "Sometimes I want to become the bully." What the documentary 'Bully' doesn't offer is the other perspective, that of the child or teenager doing the bullying. Do these bullies torment others out of a sadistic pleasure, to cope with their own problems, or because of a bad home-life? We might never know.
Likewise, the documentary only scrapes the surface of the lives of those involved. Over the course of a year, we see how things change (or don't change) for the people involved and their families, but ultimately there is no clear-cut answer Bully can give. It is not a documentary that presents itself as a solution.
The flitting about from one person to another is a necessary evil to present events chronologically, but there is potentially enough material for any of the individuals featured to have a documentary of their own.
Lee Hirsch has said he wanted this film to be seen by as many people as possible, including educators, parents and students. Unfortunately, this was scuppered after the film was rated R for use of profanity and violence. Absolutely ridiculous, when the profanity and violence is coming from and directed towards children of 14 and 15. Hirsch responded by cutting out most incidences of violence and swearing to offer a PG-13 version. It's this PG-13 version on DVD and Blu-Ray. While it might not be as hard-hitting as the uncut version, it still has a cohesive message to convey.
South Park notably parodied Bully. To quote Wikipedia, "[...] including a scene in which Kyle asks Stan (who created an anti-bullying documentary) "If this video needs to be seen by everyone, why don't you put it on the Internet for free?" to which Stan had no answer."
Despite the questionable nature of the documentary producer's intentions, this is still a strong and hard-hitting anti-bullying film. I cried several times watching it, and I would dare anyone else not to do the same. For me, it brought back a lot of my own long-forgotten feelings about being bullied in school. I think that for anyone who has been bullied - for anyone who has done the bullying - and for anyone who has stood on the sidelines and let bullying happen, this is a must watch.
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Classification: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay
DVD Release Date: 12 Feb 2013
Run Time: 98 minutes