The documentary Bully follows several middle- and high-school students who are different, awkward or for some other reason the targets of bullying. One of the kids at the center of the film is Alex, from Sioux City, Iowa.
In the film, Alex, a small boy, says people think he's not normal, and most kids don't want to be around him. And some kids at his school, or on the school bus especially, make his life miserable.
Director Lee Hirsch says Alex immediately struck him as someone who was having a hard time — and no one seemed to notice or really care.
"He's a remarkable kid," Hirsch tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We met Alex on orientation day for his seventh-grade year; he was off sitting by himself, and the world just sort of passed him by as if he did not exist. One of the things that we were thinking about was this idea that some would say that a school doesn't have bullying — or 'I don't see it.' We were sort of thinking that, actually, if you're looking for it, it's very easy to see."
In the course of shooting the movie, Hirsch not only documented Alex's complaints, but also filmed actual incidents in which Alex was hit and verbally abused on the school bus. Hirsch says he was surprised that the bullies seemed undeterred by the presence of a camera — but he also can understand it on a couple of levels.
"That particular world, that world of Alex's school," Hirsch says, "was a world where kids had become quite used to being able to bully Alex. I think the sense of consequence was very low."
Hirsch adds that the small scale of his production may have helped him capture real moments between kids.
"In our case it was just me alone and a very small camera that looks like a still camera," Hirsch says, "and I think that that sort of low profile also really helped."
Another scene Hirsch says audiences are reacting to is between an assistant principal and a bullying target named Cole. After the administrator dismisses the boy accused of the bullying, she tells Cole that because he didn't accept the boy's apology, he's being just like him.
"Except I don't hurt people," Cole says.
"By not shaking his hand, you're just like him," the assistant principal responds.
"Like someone who pushes you into a wall, threatens to break your arm?" Cole says. "Threatens to stab you and kill you? Shoot you with a gun?"
"He apologized," the assistant principal says.
A Question Of Generational Expectations?
The moment highlights a trend Hirsch says he has encountered repeatedly with teachers and administrators.
"We're not just a film; we have a whole social-action team," he says. "We have 25 partners, we're working with education associations, we're working with the teachers union, and what we hear over and over again from teachers and administrators is they don't have sufficient training and tools to handle many of these situations."
The question of how to respond appropriately and effectively to bullying is at the heart of Hirsch's film. Hirsch says it's not just a question of attitude, but of generation.
"Because I'm not an expert — I'm a filmmaker — I would say it's not about the act of shaking a finger, or ... stern discipline," Hirsch says. "Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about. It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence. We were told when we were kids, 'This is normal' — that this is a rite of passage, that kids will be kids and boys will be boys."
Along those lines, the advice that Alex's father gives him is that if someone bullies you and you don't stand up for yourself, the bully will do it again. Hirsch says it's not necessarily bad advice.
"The issue becomes, 'What if your child can't have that response?' " Hirsch says, "and they can't make it stop, and they feel like they can't speak to their parents because their father will be ashamed of them? One of the things this film raises is, families are struggling and looking at how do we talk to our kids about this? How do we help our kids on this?"
Among the major questions surrounding the film is its rating — it drew an R from the Motion Picture Association of America for its language, a ruling that will limit the movie's accessibility.
"It's absolutely heartbreaking to receive this kind of a rating," Hirsch says. "In essence the irony is, in a way, they're saying kids can't see the real life that they actually live. ... I can promise you that that language is nothing new for any student or child in this country."
Asked whether he would edit the film so it could get a PG-13 rating, Hirsch says he believes Bully should be released as is.
"At the end of the day, if we had to do that, I would probably be open to it," Hirsch says, "but ... it has to be seen in a way that's honest. And if we whitewash these experiences again, we're sort of back into that landscape of minimizing the experience of bullying, making it more palatable. That would be a great disappointment to me."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The documentary film "Bully" is about kids of middle school and high school age who are the victims of bullying. It's set to open later this month with an R-rating because of explicit language used in the movie. Now, almost 300,000 people have signed an online petition asking the Motion Picture Association of America to change that R to a PG-13.
SIEGEL: "Bully" focuses on the kids who are different or awkward or, for some reason, are victims of bullying. Kids like Alex in Sioux City, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULLY")
SIEGEL: And several kids at his school, especially on the school bus, make his life miserable. Director Lee Hirsch made "Bully," and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
LEE HIRSCH: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And while your film deals with several kids in different schools, different states, I'd like to stick with Alex for a moment. And first, I want you to describe him to us.
HIRSCH: Alex is a very - he's a small boy. He's a remarkable kid. We met Alex on orientation day for his seventh grade year. And he was off sitting by himself, and the world just sort of passed him by as if he did not exist. And one of the things that we were thinking about was this idea that some would say that a school doesn't have bullying, or I don't see it. And we were sort of thinking that actually if you're looking for it, then it's very easy to see. And Alex just immediately kind of struck us as someone that was having a hard time, and no one seemed to notice or really care.
SIEGEL: In his case, it's not just that your film documents people describing the bullying of Alex, you filmed him. You filmed him being hit and being verbally abused in the school bus. And what's very striking is the kids who were bullying him seem to be completely undeterred by the presence of your camera. What's going on?
HIRSCH: In a way, it was sort of surprising, but I also understand it on a couple of levels. I think that particular world, that world of Alex's school was a world where kids had become quite used to being able to bully Alex. And the - I think the sense of consequence was very low. I will say, too, that sometimes people think about film production, and they think of big cameras and lights and soundmen. And in our case, it was just me alone with a very small camera that looks like a stills camera. And I think that that sort of low profile also really helped.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you a bit about the attitude that you've found at the schools and in the public at large toward bullying, and I want to play a bit from a scene. This is at the same school that Alex went to, and it's an exchange between an assistant principal and another boy named Cole. And she has just told Cole and another student to shake hands and then told the other boy that he can go. And she turns to Cole.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULLY")
SIEGEL: That's the - that is the assistant principal who was chastising the kid who's been victimized here.
HIRSCH: Yeah. That's, I would say, one of the scenes in the film that most affects our audience. What was your reaction when you watched it?
SIEGEL: I was screaming at her. I was...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: ...yelling at the assistant - this kid is not the equivalent of some kid that's been punching him and beating him up because he was reluctant to shake his hand was my reaction.
HIRSCH: Yeah. What we hear over and over again from teachers and administrators is they don't have the sufficient training. They don't have the tools to handle many of these situations.
SIEGEL: You know, one thing about "Bully" for me - watching it - for me was a reminder that the world of adolescent boys, it's a jungle. And, you know, if the world were run by adolescent boys, we would have been incinerated with nuclear weapons already. We'd be finished.
HIRSCH: Have you seen what adolescent girls can do?
SIEGEL: Well, not in this particular film...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: ...but I raised two daughters. And I don't bring a romanticized view of adolescence to this. It just seemed to me - are we seeing the result of school systems that have been told you don't shake a finger at a child, you never tell a child you're out of here next week if this keeps up?
HIRSCH: I guess I would say, because I'm not an expert, I'm a filmmaker, I would say it's not about this sort of - the act of shaking a finger or this sort of stern discipline. I think it's about bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, they didn't talk about. It was wrapped with shame. It was wrapped with silence. And we were told when we were kids that this is normal, that this is a rite of passage, that kids will be kids and boys will be boys.
SIEGEL: And we're told what Alex's father tells him, which is if somebody bullies you and you don't call him on it and you don't stand up for yourself, they'll come and bully you again.
HIRSCH: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, it's not necessarily that that was bad advice. I think that the issue becomes, well, what if your child can't have that response, and they can't make it stop, and they feel like they can't speak to their parents because maybe their father is going to be ashamed of them? One of the things that this film raises is families are struggling and looking at how do we talk to our kids about this, how do we help our kids on this?
SIEGEL: There was a controversy. There has been a conflict over this film of how it should be rated. It's an R-rated film. And I gather you're not told explicitly why you get a rating, but I assume it's for language.
HIRSCH: Well, we are told that it's for language.
SIEGEL: For language.
HIRSCH: Yes. And it's absolutely heartbreaking to sort of receive this kind of a rating and to sort of see this film be slapped with that. In essence, the irony is they're sort of, in a way, saying that young people, kids can't see the real life that they actually live as...
SIEGEL: Kids who are using language the way those kids use it.
HIRSCH: Yes. And I can promise you that that language is nothing new for any student or child in this country.
SIEGEL: Would you even consider going back and bleeping or doing whatever it might be that will get you a PG-13 rating?
HIRSCH: I believe that this film should be released as it is. At the end of day, if we have to do that, I would probably be open to it. But the issue is that it has to sort of be seen in a way that's honest. And if we whitewash these experiences again, we're sort of back into that landscape of minimizing the experience of bullying, making it more palatable. That would be a great disappointment to me.
SIEGEL: Well, Lee Hirsch, thanks a lot for talking with us about it.
HIRSCH: Thank you so much for having me.
SIEGEL: Filmmaker Lee Hirsch's documentary about bullying in schools is called "Bully." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.