Believe all of the hype you’ve been hearing about the movie Bully. I’ve seen it twice and I cried even harder at the second showing I went to, sponsored by the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Keshet, ADL, Prozdor and a host of other Jewish and secular organizations.
The first time I walked into Bully I thought that zero-tolerance policies about bullying, adult intervention and a teacher or monitor on a school bus could begin to deal with the problem. Lee Hirsch’s documentary systematically punctures a hole in each of those notions. Bullying, it turns out, is deeply rooted, menacing, and wily. But there’s hope too. All it takes is the strength of just one person to point a much-needed spotlight on the subject. As Hirsch has so poignantly, so tragically demonstrated, sometimes it takes the suicide of a precious child and the eloquence of a grieving parent to once and for all show how deadly bullying can become.
After a year of intense filming, Hirsch and his team settled on five story lines to carry the documentary forward. They are all compelling, heart-wrenching stories, but there were a couple of families with whom I especially suffered.
The Longs of Murray County, Georgia lost their 17 year-old son Tyler to bullying. You know the Longs. They’re the parents that sit next to you on Back-to-School night. You talk to them over coffee at a synagogue or church function. And all the while you have no idea the tremendous pain they bore when they found out their son was shoved into a toilet or his clothes were stolen while he was in the locker room shower.
Tina Long found her son hanging in his bedroom closet. The room has been redone and serves as a de facto headquarters for the Long’s anti-bullying activism. Tyler’s ghost lives there too. Not as a haunting apparition, but as motivation for his parents to mourn his death and celebrate his life. “Tyler’s voice will be heard,” says a t-shirt that his father David wears.
Twelve year-old Alex Libby is the hero of the movie. Every single day of his school life, Alex has been tormented for being different. He was born at 26 weeks gestation and his developmental delays still dog him. His social awkwardness has been diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.
The Sioux City School District in Iowa as well as Alex’s family gave Hirsch unfettered access to Alex’s daily life. Hirsch’s camera is rolling on the first day of school at East Middle School. Alex endures insults at the stop of the notorious Bus #54. And the camera trails Alex through moment after moment of loneliness, hopelessness and abuse, both physical and emotional. Hirsch is relentless because Alex’s ostracism is relentless. And he didn’t have to do much more than film Alex by the lockers or on the playground to show that East Middle School looks like a prison.
Alex is the oldest of five children and his parents do their best to support their son. The mother in me fantasizes that with a bit more attention and a little more love, Alex could have triumphed. But it’s not that simple. His parents plead for help that is not forthcoming from the school. One assistant principal in particular is so tone deaf when it comes to understanding children that I didn’t know whether to despise her or feel sorry for her. Bullies almost certainly see well-meaning and ineffective adults as plain ridiculous. When it came to witnessing Kim Lockwood make her rounds at East, judging by the gasps I heard, so did the audience. Another assistant principal doesn’t fare much better when she interviews Alex’s tormentors on the bus. When it comes time to interview Alex, Paula Crandall urges him to speak up.
Alex replies: “Well in sixth grade you did nothing about Teddy sitting on my head.”
Crandall responds: “How do you know we didn’t do anything? Did he sit on your head after you talked to me. I did talk to him and he didn’t do that again did he?”
“No,” says Alex, his voice trailing. “But he was still doing other stuff like that.”
At one point the bullying becomes so physical that Hirsch shares his footage with the school, Alex’s parents and the police. I’ve read that Hirsch said that he was able to capture so much on film because all of the children—bullies and bullied—quickly adapted and forgot they were being filmed.
Throughout filming, Hirsch struggled with whether he should intervene when documenting incidents of bullying. In a curriculum guide to the movie produced by Facing History and Ourselves, Hirsch noted,
It was incredibly difficult not to go and rip those kids off of Alex. Had the violence increased, I’m sure there was a point at which I would have had to and would have absolutely stopped it. But the reality is that Alex wanted people to know what happens to him. And all of the kids that were in the film wanted people to know what they go through. Hirsch also pointed out the most of the parents of the bullies signed releases that allowed them to appear in the film.
At the post-film Q&A moderated by Idit Klein of Keshet and BBYO’s high school members, audience members and panelists alike brought up Hillel’s iconic saying that felt particularly relevant after watching Bully. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
After the film I bumped into another parent I knew from Anna’s school. She was fired up about bringing Bully into each of her children’s schools. And then when she caught her breath, she asked, “But will it really make a difference?”
I don’t know if viewing Bully, even with substantial curriculum support, will have a strong impact on kids. I do know that after reading Facing History’s curriculum guide for the movie and listening to parents testify at Town Hall meetings in the film, many bullies are aided and abetted by their parents’ benign neglect as well as their flat-out role modeling.
There’s a term for bullying that doesn’t leave physical scars—relational bullying. Relational bullying is not the exclusive domain of teenage girls isolating one from the rest of the group. I see it everyday among my peers. In reality, the quest to end bullying begins with us—the grownups. If you haven’t seen Bully yet, remember that while many of us contribute to the problem, we also carry the solution to halt this tragic epidemic.