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.