Filming BULLY involved more than a year of following stories and shooting footage in several schools and communities around the United States. Much of what director Lee Hirsch captured on film did not make it into the final version. As with many documentaries, making BULLY involved difficult choices about what to include and what to leave out. In a conversation with Facing History and Ourselves, Hirsch reflected on the stories he documented and how he decided what to include in the film. The interview was conducted by Daniel Sigward, curriculum writer and researcher at Facing History and Ourselves.
Facing History: You have said that this film began as a more intellectual look at bullying and ended up being a film that the viewer simply experiences.
Lee: When it started, the question was, “How do we look at bullying from the playground up through the stages of life?” We wanted to look at it in terms of how it impacts kids and how it impacts the workplace. We wanted to look at it literally in the halls of power, at global summits, and in war and other conflicts. It was broad in that sense.
Ultimately, all of that fell away and became so much less relevant and meaningful once we started to get into the real-life stories that make up the film.
FH: How do you get at the truth of what’s going on in these communities, especially when it is so difficult for the adults in these kids’ lives to do so?
Lee: It’s a funny thing about being an observer. Sometimes if you aren’t looking for something specific, you see things with more clarity. I find it very interesting because one of the things we do hear from educators is that they say, “We are on the lookout for it, but we just don’t see it. It doesn’t happen in the classroom. If it is happening, it’s happening maybe on the bus, maybe out in school playgrounds, maybe in bathrooms and hallways, and we miss it.” What sometimes gets missed by adults is that bird’s-eye perspective that you can take. Observe your students and think about who the targets might be. Who is being excluded? Who is consistently being treated in a certain way? Who is off by themselves? It’s really a question of, “What are you looking for?”
When you ask the question, “How do you get at the truth?” part of it is also a resource issue. For teachers and administrators, it’s: “I have four minutes to deal with this conflict.” As a result, often you have victims and bullies being punished in equal ways for very different kinds of behavior. It’s very, very typical to hear the story of a kid who is being bullied who lashes out at the mouth or tries to lash out physically and gets punished because the adult’s response is not a calculated operation; it’s an immediate reaction. Does this resonate with your experience?
FH: It does. I was thinking about when I was in the classroom talking to other teachers who had the same students, we always had this dividing line between students who we had a sense were bullying, or doing something else that might be unhelpful or destructive in a classroom, but they—sadly enough—did it in a way that we would never see it. But then there were other students who we knew weren’t as devious—when they did something, they always got caught. Because they didn’t know how to do it in a way to conceal it from the teachers. That totally plays into the bully and victim issues because the victims are responding in a less calculated way.
Lee: On another level is the question, “How does popularity play into teachers’ responses?” How do teachers themselves fit into the social hierarchy and structures that exist within the school environment? That can have a lot to do with athletics and how prized the individuals are in that community who might be engaged in bullying behavior. That’s one of the other things that needs to be looked at. This may be different in an arts high school in Boston as compared to the high school where Kelby went. When students have a certain amount of leeway, I think oftentimes you hear, “These are good kids. They wouldn’t do that.” I think you have this thing where you have victims who are sometimes perceived as not very credible up against this sort of ruling class of kids who are popular or successful, whether it’s in academics or athletics. It gets to something else. At this point there is a lot of conflicting theory about who are bullies. I think there was a time when people would say, kids that are bullies are kids who are destined for prison or long-term chronic depression, or that they are deeply disturbed. Now there is a lot of evidence that they are often kids who are popular and their behavior is reinforced.
FH: It makes me think of the age of Facebook, which plays into this as an adult. Suddenly you are in contact with people that you knew in school that you never thought you would be in contact with again. And you find out that some of the bullies, as adults, seem like nice people. That’s kind of hard to square with the way you felt about the same people when you left that school or that stage of your life. I find that to be an interesting and jarring experience.
Lee: Sure, I’m in touch on Facebook with some of the kids that bullied me. It’s very interesting. There’s this whole world of gray that feeds back to your initial question, which is how do we get to the truth. It might be interesting to pose that question to kids. I would argue that someone that was looking with a keen eye, looking to understand and to see, could walk into a lunchroom and within five minutes point out the kids in that lunchroom that were bullied. That’s an important thing. If that’s true, then there is a case to be made to look harder and track those kids and be aware of those kids and understand what might be weighing on the shoulders of a particular student over time and in many cases over years.
FH: As a teacher I wonder if observing the cafeteria, or looking across the classroom on the first day of school trying to identify the kids who are or could be bullied, I wonder if there is something in the teacher’s head that makes them not want to put their fingers on whatever it is about those students that might make them vulnerable, the characteristic that makes them different.
Lee: That’s a very interesting point.
FH: Perhaps not really wanting to face those differences or single that student out, even in their minds, because of those differences. When actually thinking about it that way, identifying certain differences, can be incredibly important to protecting that student and keeping him or her safe.
Lee: It doesn’t mean they have to single them out in the moment. There could be an understanding where that student knows that somebody’s got their back.
FH: Or to track that student somehow. The school where I taught sometimes assigned certain students “guardian angels”— a faculty member, often not even one that taught in that student’s grade, but one who was interested in that student or knew that student. That adult would keep an eye out as he or she walked through the building to see what was going on with that student. The guardian angel would talk to the student from time to time but not in a heavy-handed way. I am not sure how effective that was in the long run, but the idea was an interesting one.
Lee: Sure, in reality there’s not one fix that’s right for every building. Each school needs to find its own solutions and its own creative ways of challenging the norm and creating a different culture. Ultimately, I certainly believe the principal has a primary responsibility to set the culture and the tone in the building and to pass that on to faculty. And in turn faculty and all school staff create and nurture that culture—or don’t support it. That’s a really important piece of the puzzle. For teachers to have that comfort in knowing that we’re going to provide this guardian angel relationship to 20 vulnerable kids in the building at any given time, that’s going to link to something that’s real. There’s going to be a communication loop, there’s going to be counseling staff involved in that, there’s going to be a principal involved in that. There is communication with families, so that families feel like the school is on top of that. All these pieces need to intermesh.
FH: On a practical level, when I watched this film, a question that kept popping into my head, especially in certain scenes, was, “How did you catch the kids behaving that way on film?” For instance, on the bus or at the bus stop when there were only three kids there. I taught in one school for eight years, so I don’t know how it applies universally, but in my experience if there was a camera in the room, the kids would be aware of that and they would know they were being recorded and it would change how they behaved. I am curious if that was an issue or if you just had to hang around long enough so that they became habituated to the camera being there.
Lee: Two things. One is that you hang around long enough. I also think it has to do with the age, and you would know this more than I. I think middle school kids are pretty caught up in their own drama. So if you’re not somebody that poses a disciplinary threat, you are really not much noticed after a certain point. If I was noticed, I was noticed and then they would forget about me. Because they certainly did not see me as an authority figure. I would probably add, although it’s conjecture, that these were kids that were quite accustomed to being caught or seen in bullying behavior and not having consistent or real consequences for them.
I don’t like giving this example, but it’s a strong one. At Alex’s school, things were treated in different ways. At one point, some money disappeared from one of the staff members, I think it was ten dollars or five dollars. The aggravation to society was palpable. There were police cars at the school, and the principal was running down the hall, furious, saying, “This is unacceptable!” It was very, very clear that something was terribly wrong. Imagine if that was the response when Alex got assaulted by 20 kids at once on the bus. But it wasn’t the response. So then you have to give some credit to the kids, right? They are not dummies. They get way with more than we probably give them credit for. They understand that. They understand when there will be serious consequences. So it all compounds and adds up.
FH: You said you kept an eye on a lot of stories at once, particularly in Sioux City. What criteria did you use to choose which ones to follow more closely?
Lee: We were pretty locked into Alex early on. And we were struggling to feel the narrative arc or the urgency in other stories we were following, particularly in the high school. We invested nearly an equal amount of time into filming at the high school in Sioux City, which was a very, very different school. This a community that has a funny rivalry between their schools. We shot in East Middle School [Alex’s school] and West High School. The West schools were considered the bad schools; the East schools were considered the good schools. West had and continues to have really strong and good leadership, and a really strong mentoring program. Night and day, a different culture that you could feel when you walked into the building. You felt it immediately that you were in a different kind of place, where people treated each other better. Ultimately we weren’t able to piece together a story out of West, in part because good climate and culture don’t manifest themselves as drama. We really wanted to include that world and that culture and what they had achieved in the film but couldn’t. When you build a film, you’re putting together blocks that build onto each other narratively; they each have to stand with the one before and the one after in terms of being relevant, compelling, and meaningful. It was really hard to weave a good normal day into the narrative. Those are some of the things we wrestled with.
I would say about Alex—for one, we just really fell in love with him and his family. And two, they really let us into their lives. Alex was utterly unaware of the camera. Who he was, in fact his whole family really, they were exactly who they are with the cameras on and with the cameras off. That also matters when you are making a film. You really want to be with someone who is comfortable and open and does let you in. All of the families, all the kids, that are in the film, I saw them as partners in telling the story. With each of them we talked about the meaning of their decision to let us film their struggles and let us into their lives. I was able to share with them my experiences, and why I wanted to make this film, and why I felt their participation was going make a difference for others. And they universally stepped up to that call and participated for that reason. Because it is very hard to let somebody into those kinds of trials and tribulations, especially when you know you are being recorded as you do so. It factors back to another universal feeling that I have, which is that kids that are bullied want to have a voice, they want truth, they want to show the world, “This is what I go through and you guys don’t listen to me, but it’s really bad, it’s really, really hard, and I carry this around every day on my own.” That is reflected in the ways in which kids write about bullying, they blog about it, think about it, Facebook about it—all of those things are reflective of the kind of battling in silence that is part of the landscape.
FH: There is also this other element that must make it so difficult for kids who are bullied. I’m thinking about the moment in the film, where Alex’s mom says to his dad, “Probably the only thing worse than being bullied all day is to have to come home and tell you.” To not trust that your parents, or the adults in the school building, can actually respond in a way that’s helpful has got to be isolating.
Lee: When we talk with kids, when teachers talk to kids, when parents talk to kids, over and over, that’s where it’s really difficult. What’s the tone of that conversation? What’s the disappointment in your voice at that point? Those are really difficult conversations, particularly between boys and their fathers.
FH: What was hardest for you to cut from the film? What just missed being included?
Lee: There were a lot of things that were hard to cut from the film. There was a story that we spent a lot of time on with two families in North Texas. Two boys, Cain and Joe, were both being bullied in the same middle school. We really struggled to put that story in. It fit into a larger story of the fight the parents were having with the school. There had been five suicides within twenty miles of their school. Cain spoke to the school board and he clearly articulated the abuse and the things that he went through. You develop strong relationships with your subjects and it’s very disappointing to have to ultimately pick up that phone and say, “All those weeks we spent together, all that we shared, unfortunately did not make into the film.” That’s very, very difficult.
FH: I assume as a filmmaker that a big part of what you’re working up against is simply the amount of time you have to tell the story, which in the face of the story that you are telling doesn’t seem like enough.
Lee: You are working with time. You are working with how many story lines you can juggle with your audience. How does each story feed into the next? What’s the connective fiber? How does David Long saying Tyler had a target on his back link to Alex getting off the school bus and walking home? Those are things with your editing team you really work on because you want your audience to be with you. I don’t make films for myself. I believe I am given a huge privilege to tell stories through film, and I want those stories to work and be relevant for as wide an audience as possible. So I try to find that balance between what I would do that is indulgent for myself and what ultimately serves the story. Those West High stories were really, really hard to leave out. It was the same kind of phone call: “Hey, we filmed in your school for an entire year, but you’re not in the movie. Why? Because you were doing things too well.” It was a very difficult phone call to make. I can tell you something else: some of those scenes were in play until two weeks before we were finished.
FH: For each of the story lines is there anything else that you weren’t able to tell the viewer in the film that you think would really help for them to know?
Lee: One thing that comes to mind is that both Tyler Long and Alex have Asperger’s Syndrome, and we made a conscious decision not to disclose that in the film. We certainly could have, and perhaps it would have been insightful to the audience and we talked about it a lot. Ultimately, we decided that we didn’t want anything to make the audience think, “Oh, well, that explains it. Well, of course.” We didn’t want anything that anyone could hang onto in that way.
It’s hard to leave things out. We had a very robust dialogue when editing a sequence that involved Alex having a really good ride on the bus where he was getting along with all the other kids and laughing. I desperately wanted it in the film and ultimately it was just too confusing. In the landscape of bullying, you do have good days and bad days, moments where that’s all kind of gone away for a minute and you’re just happy and you feel like a normal kid. That’s another thing that’s difficult to leave out.
FH: Ja’Meya, the only African American student in the film, is the only one who responds to her situation aggressively. How did you deal with the potential stereotypes that Ja’Meya’s story might bring up?
Lee: I certainly didn’t worry about stereotypes in that way. The biggest challenge with Ja’Meya’s story was about having the right amount of understanding and empathy, and at the same time understanding that what she did was wrong, or rather, was really dangerous. We live in a world where we tell people to fight back. We live in a world where people are told to arm themselves and if anyone comes into their space that they have a right to pull a gun. I think the conclusion of Ja’Meya’s story is really important and it’s an important talking point. You can certainly understand why she would feel like what she was doing was really trying to make something go away, in a way that is very much, I would say, enforced by a lot of the messaging in society and in the messaging in states that have really strong gun rights, for example.
And another point is this: How much abuse is too much when bullying is involved? When does the assault reach a threshold where it’s too much in society’s viewpoint? If an adult were to strike another adult twice, that adult would be in jail. You would have a restraining order; society would say that’s not acceptable. But some of these kids endure what amounts to torture. The daily abuse is significant. So when we talk about Ja’Meya, it’s a delicate conversation to have because obviously you don’t want to send the message that, if you are being bullied, you can pull a gun out, but at what point does a kid who’s not getting help from adults or from peers, where does that individual turn? Sadly one of the other places they turn to is suicide, when they feel like they can get no relief.
FH: What was the process like of forming a relationship with the two families whose children committed suicide?
Lee: It was really different. With the Smalleys, the relationship was really just permission, initially, because they were burying their child when I met them. It was essentially, “I want the story of my son told. It has to be told so you can come.” That was really the extent of the initial relationship; it was a relationship of permission. With the Longs it was more of a classic bonding, sharing why you’re doing this film. With 99% of people that I film, I always try to meet them the first day before I shoot and break bread with them or visit them, talk about what’s going to happen, what my vision is, why I’m doing it, why I think it’s important, and what they can expect from me. I try to open up a relationship in that way. With the Smalleys, I didn’t get to do that because I met them at the time of the funeral. By the time I got to go back when they were organizing the vigils, we got to visit more, and we formed relationships that are very meaningful to me.
I do everything that I can to be real and raw with my subjects for them to understand that I am with them as much as I am also filming. And I try to form that trust and to form that relationship. With everybody, it really just deepened over time. We’re one big family in a way, that’s my second family, and they are that for each other as well. It’s really quite remarkable.
FH: When you told them why you were making this film, what did you say?
Lee: It’s very easy to explain the stakes to a family that has lost a child. The conversation is immediately at a certain level of understanding. When you are able to share that you were bullied. I was bullied and that was something that was very, very difficult for me. And you talk about some of those experiences and they talk about some of the things that their son went through. Then very quickly you have agreement, philosophical, intellectual, soulful, heartfelt agreement that what you want to do together is help to stop bullying. It’s as simple as that.
What I have said to people is that it is critical that this film reveals the true ugliness; it has to go to the absolute darkness that is bullying. You can’t skip around it, that’s part of the whole problem. That’s probably what the problem has been, that we don’t have a way to say, “This is how destructive this is, this is what the abuse looks like, this is what the stakes are, this is how it affects kids and families.” So with Alex, when he talks about what happens to him, it’s important because not only do we see it happen, but when he gives that testimony it creates agreement between the subject and the audience, between the filmmaker and the subject, between the viewer and what they are witnessing.
Ultimately, one of the core, key goals of making this film was to create agreement, to create a starting place for agreement, that didn’t live in something soft and in the imagination, but that was as real and defined as bullying is, and as that kind of violence can be. It’s really that simple.
The power of BULLY is in the experience of what people go through. And when audiences see these stories, they mirror their own experiences, they mirror their own memories, they mirror things that they stood by and witnessed and didn’t intervene in, or participated in, or were a victim of, because everybody ultimately has a place in the story.
Ultimately, the film moved away from experts, moved away from analysis, moved away from solutions. It really breathes and lives in a space that says, “Let’s create something that’s really emotional and that’s undeniable.” From there we can move with those emotions into choices about how to make a difference. How do we scan that lunch room in a different way? How do we pursue the truth in a different way? How do I take a stand? Ultimately, I think the power of film, or films that seek to create change, the most powerful of those films are the ones where the individual viewer can change the paradigm themselves. You are part of the change. That’s the power of this project, you are not being asked to change the world, you are just being asked to see the world differently, to act differently when someone is being victimized.
FH: I think one thing I really found myself thinking about after watching the film was the holistic nature of the ecosystem in which bullying takes place. One of the common responses to bullying is that you’re going to be bullied until you stand up for yourself, so that puts all the responsibility on the victim to stand up and stop it. But there are so many other players involved and it takes adults who know how to listen to kids and are willing to listen to kids, and it takes other kids that are willing to say something and so there is all this trust that needs to be built into the community. It’s not a ten-step plan or twelve-step plan to fix your community; it’s a lot of hard work and soul-searching.
Lee: Exactly, which is why the change is not about instituting a zero tolerance policy. It’s about how we change hearts and minds.
About the Author
Facing History's Dan Sigward worked extensively with middle school students for eight years in the Boston area. He taught Facing History to eighth graders before joining the organization as a researcher and curriculum writer this past fall.
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