Lee Hirsch Rallies for Peace with Bully
by Kyle Rupprecht

leehirschWith over 10 million school kids being bullied, there has never been a better time to watch Lee Hirsch’s powerful, moving documentary, Bully. The movie follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis, as well as their concerned and heartbroken families. Bully also focuses on the tragic deaths of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley—victims of bullying who took their own lives.

As a result of the film, The Bully Project was formed—a social outreach campaign that has enabled Bully to be screened for more than 250,000 teachers and students nationwide, as well as foster a national movement that rallies people to stand up to bullying, hate and intolerance.

Released to critical acclaim last year, Bully makes its debut on Blu-ray and DVD this week. Just before it hit store shelves, MM caught up with the movie’s Sundance award-winning director, Lee Hirsch, to discuss his personal connection with the film, as well as his run-in with the MPAA last year (Bully was initially rated “R” for language, but was later slightly re-edited to reduce the movie to “PG-13,” so that kids—the film’s core audience—could see it).

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): What inspired you to make a documentary about school bullying?

Lee Hirsch (LH): Personal history. I was bullied as a kid, so the emotional landscape was something I understood. It was a project that I carried for a long time before I had the guts to get it started. In 2009, when we began, the stories of lives cut tragically short by suicide had just begun to grip the nation—this was heartbreaking and really cemented our will to do the film. I thought if we could document what the experience of being bullied was, we would help put an end to age old attitudes such as, “boys will be boys.” I wanted to give a voice to the millions that had gone through the experience.

MM: The film seems to posit that there’s no easy solution to ending bullying, but do you think there are some concrete steps that schools, parents and children might take to begin to alleviate the problem?

LH: I think the broader question is how adults in general can really step up here. We’re asking a lot of youth, we’re asking them to be upstanders and not to be bystanders. They need partnership from their teachers, from school support staff and from administrators. Since completing the film, we have learned a lot about how to support educators in using the film to help build community-wide agreement on the need to address school culture. The onus should not be on kids to fix the situation. There is no neat and tidy answer to this question. We know that kids will do better across the board when schools teach empathy and social and emotional learning as foundational commitments.

MM: Capturing a real kid being bullied on camera must have been a challenging scenario. From a moviemaking standpoint, how were you able to accomplish this? What was the biggest difficulty or challenge you encountered while filming?

LH: “Challenging scenario” would be an understatemento—how about heartbreaking. It was really difficult. It was very hard to be on that bus, I shot those scenes myself with a Canon 5D Mark 2, having a low profile was key to the filmmaking across the board. On the bus, it was about bearing witness. Alex [one of the students featured in the film] wanted people to know what was happening to him—I think he felt like finally someone had his back in those moments, but that didn’t make it any easier.

MM: Noticeably missing from the film is the perspective of the bullies themselves. Why did you make that decision?:

LH: For me, the voice of this film came pretty early on; the stories of the kids and families dealing with bullying on such an immediate and tragic level had so much dramatic urgency that it was clear theirs was the only voice this film would carry. Having been bullied, perhaps it was easier for me to tell a story I understood as well. I suppose I also felt that aggressors or bullies already had a loud enough voice in this world.

MM: Could you talk a little about last year’s ratings controversy concerning Bully’s theatrical release? Were you pleased with the outcome?

LH: I was—I learned a lot from The Weinstein Company during those weeks! They were really smart in recognizing that the rating would be a story and that people would both rally to the film and the cause. I also really appreciated how they stuck by me during the fight. Amazing things happened. While we locked horns, we also really engaged and I knew that many people at the MPAA really supported us. Ultimately I was happy with the outcome and feel that the compromise we struck was fair. The fight to overturn the rating also had an amazing, unexpected supporter—a 17-year-old student, herself a victim of bullying named Katy Butler, started a petition on Change.org that had over a half a million signatures. Now that rocks!

MM: Since the release of the film, what kinds of reactions have you encountered? Has it inspired people to get involved in the anti-bullying campaign?

LH: It has been an amazing year! Since the film’s premiere, we have screened at the White House and on Capitol Hill and raised millions of dollars, funding educational programs and free screenings for over 250,000 kids and 10,000 educators. We have received thousands of messages from educators, parents and kids. Many have created art, music and unique initiatives inspired by the film. We have seen town hall meetings from small town America to Seoul, South Korea.

Our main goal is to provide great resources and then get out of the way. With the release of the DVD, we should see even more impact! Through our website thebullyproject.com, there are multiple ways to get involved. Our work continues!

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