Full disclosure: I am director general of the Tolerance Foundation. We awaken students to the power of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We also field a team of animators who go into high schools and demonstrate how to combat bullying and discrimination.
Wearing that hat I went off to see the new theatrical documentary called Bully, which opens in Montreal on April 13. Bullying is part of the zeitgeist right now so it was inevitable that a documentary would finally be produced on bullying and bullies.
The film is drawing rave reviews and is being taken seriously by good people like Robert Siegel at National Public Radio and critic A.O. Scott at The New York Times. It was initially given an R rating in the U.S., apparently for the language. The producers turned that rating into a marketing moment, mobilizing the liberal press on a free speech issue. (Distributor the Weinstein Company ultimately decided to release the film unrated.)
But the compassionate, heartfelt cinema that they are praising is not the film I watched. Bully left me unutterably sad, and angry. It is deeply exploitive of the children, the parents and the teachers featured in the documentary. It ultimately disempowers viewers.
It is a close-up, personal film about five kids and their families in the deep rural United States, where people live a hardscrabble life and have done so for generations.
They are lower middle class and working class. Their lives are impoverished in every way. These are the people of The Grapes of Wrath in modern times.
Bully is the story of five of those children. Two of the kids profiled have chosen to kill themselves – one hanged himself in the closet of one of the rooms of his house. The other shot himself with a weapon belonging to his dad. We do not see the suicides but only the horrific aftermath.
The other three children are in big trouble. One is a young black girl who lives a trailer park life.
One day she gets bullied so badly it sends her over the top. She reaches for an American solution – she reaches for a handgun. It’s her mom’s weapon. On the school bus she pulls it out and, yelling in fear and anger, threatens her tormentors. No shots are fired and she is overpowered by another kid on the bus.
The local police throw the book at her, and she is incarcerated in a psychiatric facility and is finally released.
Another kid is a preemie who has lifelong health issues and is incredibly brave. He tells his mother that his only friends are his tormentors. As Marc Cassivi pointed out in La Presse, he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. His life is a living hell but he manages to retain a sweetness and humour which is tragic.
Another character is a super bright gay girl from a fundamentalist Christian family. To their credit the family revise their hard-line anti-gay position for love of their daughter. But they cannot help her. She and they are pariahs in the community where they once led Sunday school.
And in the case of these five kids, the adults featured in the film are hopelessly inept, and worse.
A devastating scene shows a school administrator who seems like a nice enough woman, but she tells parents that the bus is fine and that the kids who ride on it are "good as gold." Well, sure they are, when she’s on board.
Watching the film unroll one wonders about the total access filmmaker Lee Hirsch got from his subjects. We discover in an NPR interview with the director that the kids and parents were likely deceived by the small camera he was employing. Many of the newest documentary tools – like the Canon 5D Mark II – are not much larger than an old single-shot film camera.
In fact no middle-class family would ever allow such an invasion. No middle-class family would ever sign a release allowing such exploitation. It’s enough to make documentary makers queasy.
There is nothing in this film about solutions. It rings the fire alarm without even suggesting how to put out the fire. "This year 13 million American kids will be bullied; 3 million students will be absent because they feel unsafe at school," headlines the film’s website. But Bully does not even pretend to demonstrate how bullying can be successfully confronted. In that way the film is terribly disempowering.
Fifty years of research tells us that solutions abound in how to confront and end bullying. With proper intervention from trained teachers and principals it is possible to dramatically diminish if not eliminate this kind of persecution.
Leadership is needed – leadership by kids and adults on a day-to-day basis signalling that this kind of behaviour is not cool. Maybe the scene was left on the cutting room floor. In the end the film deserves an E rating – E for exploitation.