Interview with Director Lee Hirsch: "Bullying Impacts Who We Are as a Nation"
“For many young people, bullying is the first form of violence and ugliness we experience in a real way in our lives,” says BULLY director Lee Hirsch.
As filmmaker Lee Hirsch sees it, America is at a tipping point. He is not talking about politics, the economy, immigration, or wars overseas. He is talking about bullying.
“This story has been huge over the past two years – but it’s not disappearing. Now that it’s out and everyone’s still talking about it, we as a country are beginning to realize how much pain it has caused,” Hirsch said during a recent telephone conversation from his New York City home. “There is a real sense that this is no longer ok.”
Bullying is the topic of the 39-year-old filmmaker’s latest documentary, BULLY, for which Facing History and Ourselves is an educational partner and has created a resource to accompany the movie, A Guide to the Film BULLY: Fostering Empathy and Action in Schools. The film premiered March 30 in selected theaters, Hirsch will speak about the film, and about creating safe school culture, with friends and family of Facing History at three free and open community events this fall.
Hirsch, a former victim of bullying himself, started filming BULLY in the fall of 2009, shortly after two 11-year-old boys – one from Massachusetts and one from Georgia – committed suicide following prolonged harassment at school. He spent the rest of that academic year in a handful of schools across the country, following five students and families. “I wanted to understand how [bullying] is handled, how it is approached within the walls of the [school] building,” he said. The result is a stark portrait of what bullying looks like from the perspective of the victims. Among the individuals featured are a 12-year-old boy who sustains regular taunts, jabs, and punches from classmates; a 16-year-old one-time basketball star who became a town outcast after coming out as a lesbian; and a 14-year-old girl jailed for wielding a gun on her school bus to protect herself from bullying. The film also follows two families dealing with the aftermath of teen suicide.
“Kids that are bullied often have a hard time being heard,” Hirsch said when asked why he chose to focus his film on the victim experience. Armed with a tiny crew and small camera, Hirsch shadowed kids on school busses, in hallways and classrooms, on the basketball court, and out at recess. The film does show parents and other adults – teachers and school administrators – but includes no expert testimony. Bullies are shown, too, but not interviewed. “There remains a sense of shame involved [for the victims of bullying], that this is a rite of passage – that it isn’t that bad, or it’s not worth whining about,” Hirsch said. By focusing on victims, he said, he hopes to dispel that myth.
And that is where Facing History comes in. The guide (which you can download from this site), provides adults and educators with further readings on bullying, discussion strategies to use with audiences of various ages, and excerpts from Facing History’s Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism. The guide builds on Facing History’s more than 35 years of experience researching, teaching, and writing about historical episodes of collective violence, and connecting them to the experiences and decisions of today.
"BULLY should remind all of us that bullying is a serious issue that impacts and involves us all. Educators and community members can turn to Facing History as a model of how to foster the skills and attitudes that make bullying much less likely to happen in schools.” – Dennis Barr, Facing History’s director of evaluation and manager of Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism.
“The goal is to create more openness and an ability for people to work together to solve these issues,” Hirsch said. “Bullying is such a deep issue that it impacts who we are as a nation.” He backs up his sense of urgency with statistics: 18 million kids will be bullied in the U.S. this year; three million will be absent each month because they feel unsafe in school. “I believe in my heart that for many young people, bullying is the first form of violence and ugliness we experience in a real way in our lives. This is where we meet violence, whether we’re a victim, or a perpetrator, or a bystander, and who we are in the face of that has lifelong repercussions,” he said.
And Hirsch, who grew up in Long Island, knows from personal experience the power that schools can have in ending bullying. “Somewhere in elementary school, it became fun to hit Lee,” he said. “Just getting home was an absolutely terrifying experience for me.” Hirsch received no support from his school or at home. “My mother would have been [supportive] if she had the tools,” he said. “My father did not see it as a problem. He didn’t rally to my defense.” Hirsch went off to boarding school in the ninth grade. For the first time, he found a supportive environment and a school climate in which he felt safe. He developed a passion for social justice and political action. After graduating, Hirsch travelled across Europe, did a year in college, and eventually enrolled in film school in New York City. His first full-length documentary, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, chronicled the history of the South African anti-apartheid struggle and won nods at the Emmys and at the Sundance Film Festival. Hirsch credits much of his work – which to this day remains rooted in issues of social justice – to his high school experiences.
“Schools have the opportunity and the responsibility to look at and envision what kind of school climate they want to have and work towards that,” he said. “When you have good leadership and that leadership says, ‘What we value is empathy and the success of all people in this building,’ it allows students to come up with a certain sense of what’s ok and what’s not ok.”
Hirsch knows that starting the conversation on bullying is tough. And changing behavior is the biggest challenge. But he hopes his film helps give students, parents, and educators the tools needed to create safe school cultures. In the end, he said, it will create a more just society. “Never underestimate the power of a single action of kindness,” Hirsch said. “You have enormous power to make a difference and you never know how significant that support can be to the person you’re offering it to.”
His goals, it seems, may not be that far out of reach. “I was there today and it was very inspiring,” a student posted on Hirsch’s Facebook wall following an early screening of the film. “After we got back to school we finished our classes then on the bus a kid was being bullied by some girl. I tried to help him and he was getting very upset after she had been yelling at him, and me and a couple friends talked to him about what we had just [seen] today and we told him to talk to a counselor and tell her what had happened. If it wasn’t for what I saw today I probably would have never stepped in and stopped it to be honest, I probably would have just ignored it.”
For more information on BULLY and how to see the film, visit www.thebullyproject.com
Learn more about Facing History’s work with bullying and ostracism on this site, FacingHistory.org/safeschools
Facing History’s Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For further questions, feel free to contact her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.
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