Seventh grade isn't a great time for anyone, but it was my worst year in school. Why? Because I was constantly bullied and sexually harassed by some boys in school. I never talked to anyone about it (because it seemed to be par for the course), but those experiences affected how I felt about myself for years to come.
I overcame these experiences over time, but not everyone does. That's clear if you take a look at how many kids have committed suicide due to bullying over the past few years.
How do we prevent bullying when we have so little control over what goes on in schools or online? Documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch is attempting to answer that question, or at least confront it head-on. His latest film, Bully, follows five different students in the U.S. who've become the victims of severe bullying. The film brings to light, through honest and shocking footage, the lack of attention that bullying gets from school systems. But rather than blame the institutions, Hirsch's film takes a more empowering approach, with the idea that each person can make a difference.
I got the opportunity to interview Hirsch, who was also bullied as a kid and made the film not only to incite change, but as a way to give a voice to kids who've been bullied.
BUST Magazine: How did you find your subjects, and how did you narrow them down? They were pretty diverse.
Lee Hirsch: Well certainly with Alex, the central character's story, it was the fact that you have the whole arch of bullying. The kid who's being bullied, the family trying to deal with it, and the school trying to respond to it. And of course we had the access, where we could be inside the school, that we didn't have with other characters. But we felt really strongly about not wanting to tell the story from any one particular group. That can be really polarizing. Any kid that's different can be bullied.
BUST: How did you get the footage of Alex being bullied? Did you hide cameras in the buses?
LH: It was me on the bus actually.
BUST: And there were kids on the bus? Did they know what was going on?
LH: They were aware, but not interested. As the school year went on, we became very boring. This was just me standing with what looks like a consumer camera. Alex was wearing a wireless microphone which some of the kids didn't know, but we worked really hard to have it be apparent that we weren't following Alex, to try and not draw attention to the fact that we had honed in on his story. The other sad truth is that the bullying had gone on long before we were in the frame, if you will. It had gone on in front of adults and hadn't been stopped, so I didn't present myself as an authority figure to those kids. It was amazing. I remember thinking, "They don't even know that I'm here, they don't even notice me."
BUST: Something else that struck me was that how some of the parents seemed to struggle with the issue of bullying and didn't really know how to deal with it. What do you think the role of parents is when it comes to bullying?
LH: I think that parents do really struggle with this for lots of reasons. I think lots of kids don't talk to their parents about what's going on so it's difficult for them to even know. They can look for the signs and what's changing with their kids. They can keep talking to them to see what's going on. I think if they have a sense that their child might be being bullied they need to imagine that it's worse than what they're being told. I think they need real tools to navigate the systems of interfacing with the school so the kids can be protected in these situations. It's not an easy process, and there's no great sort of roadmap. We're putting together a resource for parents where they can enter their zip code and they'll learn the district policies on bullying, and there will be tools for writing letters and documenting what's happening that shows that they're empowered and know their rights. It's a beginning to give parents a guide to advocate for their kids, especially if the administration is not being responsive. Unfortunately that's the case all too often. Kids will be able to write letters on their own behalf also if their parents aren't advocating for them.
BUST: I think that's a really strong approach, because clearly your film shows you can't depend on anyone else to do anything. So it's more about how to empower yourself, right?
LH: Absolutely. But another thing the film shows is that you're not alone. A lot of kids feel that they're alone in having this experience, when in fact they're so not alone. So many kids also have that experience, the movie just gets everyone talking about it.
BUST: Tell me more about the Bully Project, which is in partnership with the film.
LH: We're trying to capitalize on the film itself and the fact that we're going to have a national platform. We're trying to invite the largest community possible into this experience to make change. We have over 25 partners ranging from Autism Speaks and The National Center for Learning Disabilities to develop a whole set of tools for parents and kids with special needs, to the HRC and multiple GLBT organizations, to Education.com to Facebook., Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and DoSomething.org.
I believe we're at a tipping point when it comes to bullying, and that's really exciting. We've set this goal of showing this film to no less than one million kids, with opportunities to engage with these organizations. Can you imagine if a million kids see this, what the ripple effect will be? We have a whole team who's hard at work trying to turn this into something completely amazing. The other thing I can say, is stay tuned!
Bully is out in select theatres March 30th. For more info, go to thebullyproject.com