Never has failure been so successful: While Harvey Weinstein was unable to get “Bully” a PG-13 rating, his attempts resulted in massive public awareness, celebrity rallies and even free advertising in support of the film and its cause.
However, it’s a PR coup that the filmmakers never saw coming. In this first-person feature, exclusive to Indiewire, “Bully” writer-producer Cynthia Lowen opens up about why she teamed with director Lee Hirsch to make the film, why they chose not to intervene while witnessing the bullying, and what it’s been like to go through this experience with Weinstein at the helm.
When director Lee Hirsch and I teamed up to make “Bully,” starting in the spring of 2009, we sensed a “tipping point” moment was occurring in our society and a nation around the issue of bullying. On YouTube, we discovered kids making videos about the terrible bullying they were enduring at school, we were reading comments on blogs and chatrooms, or on any news story that touched on bullying, accounts from parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators, and young people, speaking up about this issue. One thing all of these stories shared was a sense of frustration and helplessness, a desperate desire for their voice to be heard, and a call for change.
As Lee had been bullied as a teenager, this was a film that had been on his mind, probably since he was in middle school. However that spring we decided now was the time to shine a light on this issue in such a way as to make bullying undeniable, and to debunk the myth that it is a “normal” rite of passage, or just kids being kids. We wanted to give voice to those who were suffering in silence or shame, and hope that things could be different.
We decided early on that we wanted to follow an entire school year. The notion of the school year itself — the ways our lives hinge around the anticipation of going back to school in the fall, the familiar dread of the school bus, the long slog of winter, and the freedom of summer, the iconic idea of school — was something that we knew we wanted to explore. Because for kids who are bullied, these experiences, these expectations—school dances, and football games, spring musicals and running for student council—are so often turned inside out from what they should be: these moments are filled with fear or distress where, according to legend, they should be filled with excitement and friendship.
Not only did we want to take the year to really get to know each of the families who were part of this journey with us, but also to understand the challenges of being a teacher or an administrator, how the freshness and intentions of September can become exhausted or overwhelmed by March. We also wanted to be inside the world when a school year feels like eternity. For kids who are bullied, this is especially true.
We were very fortunate to get access to the Sioux City Community School District early in the process, the summer before the school year started. After speaking with the school board, and the superintendent, they agreed to let us film district-wide for the 2009/2010 school year. This decision reflects a lot of bravery on the district’s part, hoping that we would find a lot of great things going on, (which we did, at West High, a high school 10 years into bullying prevention work), while knowing we would also discover there is still work to be done in the buildings where bullying prevention was in the early phases—which was the case at Alex Libby’s middle school.We met Alex before the school year started, right after 7th grade orientation, sitting outside the school on a bench, waiting to be picked up. While the other kids gathered in groups, loudly chattering about what they did over the summer and which teachers they had for which period, Alex was distinctly alone, shoulders slumped around him, looking both determined to fly under the radar and acutely in need of a friend. When we approached him, we soon learned that he had been bullied since elementary school.
We met other families in a variety of ways. Kelby’s mother, Londa, had written in to Ellen DeGeneres’ website after Ellen did a show with Sirdeaner Walker, who lost her son Carl to suicide after he was relentlessly bullied. We were shocked by Londa’s description of the bullying Kelby had endured, after she came out to her small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma, forced from her sports teams because her teammates harassed her on the field and in the locker room, alienated at school where both peers and teachers hurled homophobic slurs at her, unsafe on the streets of her community where she was run down by a carful of her classmates in a minivan. With the help of Ellen’s producers, we were able to reach out to Kelby, whose incredible courage we soon were in awe of.
Ja’Meya’s story came to us through hearing about the news of the young man who bravely wrestled the gun away from her on her school bus, with an awareness that the other side to the story was not being heard. When Lee met her, Ja’Meya was incarcerated in a Mississippi juvenile detention facility, awaiting a ruling on multiple felony charges including kidnapping and attempted aggravated assault. As opposed to the “kids gone wild” tone of much of the news media about her, Ja’Meya was a soft-spoken 14-year-old, a basketball player, an honor student and a girl who was relentlessly picked on over the course of her hour-long bus ride to and from school—who eventually broke.
We met David and Tina Long a few weeks after their son Tyler had taken his own life at 17 after being terribly bullied—even after his suicide—when his bullies wore nooses to school the Monday following the tragedy. We learned that the Longs were holding a Town Hall Meeting, to discuss bullying in their community of Chatsworth, Georgia, and were stunned by their commitment to engage kids, parents, community leaders, and hopefully, educators, on how to make a difference in Murray County’s schools. Unfortunately, the school district declined to participate in the Town Hall meeting, but the voices of both these parents, and others in the community were astonishing, and we continued to follow the Longs’ struggle to ensure no other child would have to endure the torment that Tyler suffered.
And we met Kirk and Laura Smalley in the spring of 2010, at the tail end of that long school year, just days after their son Ty, 11, had passed away. In the midst of mourning such a profound loss, we were struck by Kirk and Laura’s determination to transform this tragedy into change. Within just a few months, they had launched Stand for the Silent, which today has reached tens of thousands of students, inspiring young people to stand up for those who are being bullied, and for those who are bullied, to cherish their own self-worth.
It was through the bravery of these five kids and families that we were able to depict the experience of bullying in such a way as to make it impossible to gloss over, to turn the other way, to accept as a “normal” rite of passage, or “just kids being kids.” As we have discovered from the incredible outpouring of support in the past weeks in regard to the MPAA rating, this film reflects the experiences of not only these five families, but of the 13 million kids and families who are bullied in this country every single year.Witnessing the bullying that was taking place on Alex’s bus and at his school was incredibly difficult. At the time, as we were not monitoring audio, there were also several bullying episodes that took place, including the first bus ride of the film, in which another boy violently verbally threatens Alex, that we did not realize had occurred until we were editing the film, many months later. Over the course of the year, certainly, a trust was built between us and Alex, and although we were often “flies on the wall,” Alex knew that we were there, and that there was a delicate balance in our work together to both make sure he was safe, but to also bear witness to the things that he had experienced for so long, in silence and isolation.
Ultimately, Lee and I did intervene. After witnessing escalating bullying on the bus, and knowing from Alex that it was even worse when we were not there, we decided to share the footage with his parents and with school officials, and to make sure action was taken to make him safe. As the film depicts, this moment was a turning point in his family’s awareness of the extent of Alex’s bullying, which he had kept from them up to that time, and led to him being taken off that bus.
Having the energy of Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company behind this film has been an incredible journey, and has enabled “Bully” to have a reach, that at the beginning, we could have only dreamed of. This film had pretty humble beginnings, which probably sounds very familiar to many independent documentary filmmakers out there. We started this out of our own homes, with our own savings, knowing that this was the moment we had to begin this film; that we couldn’t wait for a grant to come through, or a financier. Fortunately, over time, we did get support from several great organizations, including Cinereach, the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, the BeCause Foundation, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust the Sundance Documentary Film Fund, and others, but throughout production, our team remained tiny: just Lee and I for the most part, him doing cinematography, me doing sound and production, or sometimes just Lee alone.
After the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, in April 2009, and we were approached by The Weinstein Company, we knew they would be able to get this film to as many people as possible, and that they would make sure the voices of the kids and families in this film were heard—and had impact. As we hoped, having Harvey Weinstein as a champion of this film has given “Bully” an incredible opportunity to reach the millions of kids and families who are touched by this issue, and to generate real change in our society and culture.