On Friday morning, students from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles got what Harvey Weinstein wanted: The opportunity to watch "Bully," Lee Hirsch's documentary about five kids and their families devastated by bullying.
"Bully," of course, received an 'R' rating this week from the MPAA, which was later upheld despite an in-person appeal from Weinstein and bullying victim Alex Libby. Weinstein's now threatening a "leave of absence" from the MPAA, an organization he's happily clashed with on multiple occasions.
Any grandstanding aside, what's at stake is the opportunity for kids to easily see "Bully" (formerly known as "The Bully Project"). Not only do they serve as the film's subjects and promise to be the film's best audience, they are also the ones most likely to benefit from its message.
The R rating stems from profanity, including the nuclear epithet of "motherf***er." In a Q&A after today's screening, Hirsch asked Joe Jacovo’s 9th grade English class if they could handle the language and the high schoolers said they thought it was mild; one student added, “I know we’re not supposed to talk this way, but we do.”
Hirsch's audience was more concerned with his experience of documenting the abuse of Libby, the film's subject.
“It was really, really hard," said Hirsch. "If it had gotten more violent, I would have… the bigger picture was I wanted to stop it. Alex and I had a kind of partnership and agreement, he was committed to being brave – he wanted people to know what he actually experienced. It had been happening for years. He was almost happy that somebody saw it.”
Another Fairfax freshman asked if the bullies cared that they were being caught on film tormenting Alex.
“I don’t think there was a show for the camera,” said Hirsch. “I don’t think they were more aggressive or less aggressive; it’s just how they were that day. I’ve ridden that bus a number of times, on different days. That school existed in a climate and culture where kids had been able to bully Alex for many years. And the consequences were not really serious. The presence of an adult who wasn’t a disciplinarian didn’t really mean anything because they were used to that. Plus, I was shooting with a 5D, what looks like a still camera, just riding the bus.“
During the Q&A, Fairfax High student Haku Chi created a stir when, after congratulating Hirsch on the film, she turned around and challenged some boys behind her who had been less than respectful to the film's message and subject.
Later, Chi explained: “I was really upset that someone didn’t appreciate (Hirsch’s) work. They were laughing at the way the mom acted whose son died and the fact that ‘No Fags Allowed’ was written on a locker. I took that very personally, because I’m lesbian myself. It was hard watching, hearing them, while I was trying to watch the film. With my experiences, me being such a nonconformist, I’m always getting bullied for being lesbian, for being pagan, for not hanging out with other Asians.”
Chi went on to explain through tears that “I came out officially to my parent a couple of months ago. My house was crazy, I went to foster care, the school got into it, it was a big deal. My friends knew since I was 13. I always knew and I wasn’t afraid to tell people. I’m glad for where I live, because I know other people have it so much harder. And I’m very happy with the friends I have, they’re okay with it, but I have friends that live in the Valley – well, suicidal thoughts come to everybody."
Chi was also “glad that other kids watching the movie have the chance to know what it’s like to be bullied and not accepted into normal society,” but, like Weinstein, worried about the impact of the “R” rating.
“I think it’s ridiculous that kids aren’t able to see this, because they need to get affected by this film," she said. "The reactions that I’ve seen, my friend was crying, I was crying, it rings a bell. And people stop and think and they go – ‘I know someone who should be spoken to. I know someone who should be stood up for.’ For it be shown to other kids – makes all the difference.”
As far as the rating battle goes, the Weinstein Company maintains that the appeal process is still pending and they intend for the film to be seen in its current state without edits.
Hirsch made it clear that no ground will be ceded on the film. “My position has been no, I don’t want to cut it. I said, 'I would like you to support me in fighting this rating' and [Weinstein] said, ‘We’re already there.’ This film is not an 'R' film. Those scenes matter. And that language makes it real.”