Bullyby Andy Davis / 28.08.2012
If you look closely at Filmmaker Lee Hirsch’s face you’ll notice his nose is kind of squiff. It bends off to the left. When he was 13 years old, an older, bigger kid at school, who had often beaten up on Lee, spun around and clocked him, breaking his nose. He describes his memories of being bullied as, “acutely memorable. Painfully timeless.” Little did he know at the time, but this act of violence, one of many suffered over his school career, would over the years become the impetus for his latest film, Bully.
If you don’t remember, Lee Hirsch made a name for himself with the excellent Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony. A documentary about the role of resistance music in the fight against apartheid. The film scooped several awards including the Sundance Audience Award and an Emmy. More than that, it offered one of the most cogent and emotive narratives of South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
Then Hirsch went quiet. He dabbled in a few music videos and some advertisement shoots, and looked into the possibility of a couple Hollywood b-grade opportunities. But his strength has always been in narrative non-fiction filmmaking. Then in 2009 he stumbled across his next big thing.
“I was bullied as a kid.” He said. “And you carry those memories. As a filmmaker you’re at your best when you have a story you can connect to, that you can really tell from the heart. But at first, I was too scared to start developing the idea in earnest because it would mean confronting my own demons, and revisiting a painful period of my life.”
What he ended up producing is a cinematic, character-driven documentary that tracks how five children and their families have been impacted by bullying. Filmed over 2009 and 2010, Bully documents the responses of porents, teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviour in schools, and invariably became the spearhead for a growing movement among parents and kids to change how bullying is handled in schools.
“And I think it’s so hard.” Says Hirsch. “People talk about bullying and say, ‘kids will be kids’. A lot of people don’t really have the agency to talk about those experiences. So I think that this film was about giving people a voice.”
Hirsch has that rare knack of being in the right place at the right time, with his documentary film projects. In many ways Bully has provided the impetus for a global re-look at the problem of bullying in schools. And with fresh US presidential elections on the horizon, the film has found its way into the national debate. It gained the attention of the Obama administration, was screened at the White House and is perhaps starting to have an effect on US education policy. Then, a few months later, reports surfaced that Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney had bullied a classmate at school, holding him down and forcefully cutting his hair. Instead of jumping behind the campaign to confront bullying in schools, Romney simply said he doesn’t remember the incident, but did not deny the report.
“Here was an incredible opportunity for him to really step up.” Said Hirsch. Either way, publicity like this, that cuts to the heart of the political drama currently unfolding, is gold for Hirsch’s film.
And it’s not the first time Bully has created controversy. The film originally received an ‘R’ rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, meaning that no one under the age of 17 could see it unless accompanied by a parent, and worse yet, the film could not be shown in high schools. Which would obviously meant that many of the film’s intended audience would be excluded. Like a red flag to a bull, Hirsch went into overdrive and started a massive internet petition to overhaul the rating. One 17 year old student, Katy Butler, launched a petiion that garnered over 500 000 signatures alone. Producers, The Weinstein Company threatened to withdraw from the MPAA rating system all together. Eventually, a compromise was found. The film re-cut a scene with some barely audible f-bombs and the MPAA gave up their PG-13 rating.
And finally, Bully has made it to South Africa. Obviously it’s a poignant moment for Hirsch, considering Amandla gave the filmmaker his first taste of success.
“South Africa was my home for nearly a decade and the creative ground for my first film, which explored the role of music in the liberation struggle…” Says Hirsch. “In many ways my new film explores similar themes, through a much more personal lens. I hope people make it out to see this film and suspect that although the films portrays American childhood cruelty and adult indifference, the parallels are truly global.”
And as with most things in South Africa, the scourge of bullying is nothing if not amplified in this country. Just think of all those sordid cellphone video clips of schoolkids fighting, being assaulted by teachers, involved in illicit and illegal sexual acts. South African school kids really need to connect with this film. But with an indifferent education department that cannot even deliver text books, let alone take responsibility for their failure, a film tour to highlight the problem of bullying in schools seems a long way off.
Alas, Bully doesn’t have the marketing clout to push for a nationwide school tour, as it did in the US. But it is currently showing at Ster Kinekor Nouveau until this Thursday 30 August 2012. Go see it.