For a parent to be forced to bury a child is perhaps one of life’s greatest tragedies. But that tragedy is compounded when the child being buried took their own life because they could no longer bear the agony of the bullying that was a constant in their life, daily.
Director Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully looks not at those children who bully, but at five of their victims. Two of whom are no longer with us, although they live on in the efforts of their parents to try to prevent their tragic loss of a child from happening to others.
Most are familiar with the battle that the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company. It fought and lost to get the MPAA to revise their R-rating of Bully and the decision to release it as without a rating. That blockbuster films with tons of graphic, generic violence pass muster with ratings of PG-13, while this film’s offensive language prevented it from receiving the same rating is a travesty of double-standards.
Alex is a student in the Souix City school system and the primary focus of the film’s view of the three surviving victims of bullying. Born after only 26 weeks gestation, Alex’s nickname among his tormentors is “Fish Face.” He is the eldest among several children and clearly loved by his parents. But even his siblings tease him and comment that it is his fault they themselves are teased because he is “creepy”. His parents are unaware of the level of the bullying he is enduring when the film opens, and they might have remained so had the filmmakers not become concerned for his safety and warned the parents and the school district of the alarming increase in his being bullied.
We watch how terribly he is treated while riding the bus to and from school and when one of the school administrators is finally confronted about how unsafe the bus he, she dismisses the parental concern. “I’ve ridden the 54 bus.”
Like the kids would misbehave in front of her.
Ja’Meya is a teenaged girl in Yazoo County, MS and we don’t get to see much of her. Nor do we see any of the torments she’s suffered at the hands of those who bullied her. But we do get to see video of how she reacted when she’d finally reached her limit. She took her mother’s gun with her onto the bus and when some of those who enjoy bullying her start in, she pulls the gun out and brandishes it, terrifying everyone.
The law enforcement official that Hirsch and company seek out comment from is dismissive of what had happened to her before she drew the gun, saying that unless she’d been beaten about the head and face, there is no justification for what she did. “She committed 22 counts of kidnapping and could go to jail for years and years” is his focus and Ja’Meya is locked in a secure psychiatric facility for two months before her fate is determined.
Kelby is also a teen girl, in Oklahoma, aka Bible Belt territory. She was a star athlete and did well in life until she finally came out of the closet and admitted she is a lesbian. Ever since, except for a small cadre of her closest friends, she is ostracized and tormented. Not just by students, but even some of her teachers engage in less than appropriate treatment of her. Her parents offer to take her to a larger town, where she won’t stand out so much, but she says that if she gives in and flees “they win.”
The parents of the two victims of bullying who chose to commit suicide themselves choose to try to make something good come from their tragedy. Gary, whose 11 year old son will remain 11 forever points out that “if this happened to a politician’s kid, there’d be a law against it tomorrow” and one is left to wonder just what it will take to get politicians and school administrators to give this problem the attention it deserves.
It is worthy of noting here that Hirsch made a choice in how the film deals with the suicide of Tyler Long. He does not disclose that the teen who hung himself in his closet apparently suffered from mental illness. He was diagnosed as having ADHD as well as Asperger’s Syndrome. There is also a report he was bi-polar. Being bi-polar and having Asperger’s Syndrome reportedly raise the probability of one committing suicide.
The footage obtained of Alex is both enlightening and frightening. Hirsch and crew do a great job of illustrating that there is a problem, and that some are interested in solving it.
If there is a major flaw in Bully, it’s that the perspective of the bullies themseves is almost completely absent. There are a few scenes of some of these kids trying to explain their behavior to an assistant principal, but the bully’s POV is almost non-existant. We do not see the causes of bullying, or what parents of bullies do when confronted with evidence of their children’s transgressions. That’s what the next documentary must explore if this problem is ever going to see a real solution.
Bully is an eye-opener and should be seen by every student, grades 6 and up.