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April 21, 2011 3:47 AM
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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "The Bully Project" Director Lee Hirsch

Lee Hirsch's "The Bully Project." Image courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

More than 18 million young people across the US will be bullied this year. This alarming documentary takes us into the disquieting day-to-day lives of five kids and their families over the course of a school year. Two families are left devastated by their sons' suicide, while one mother faces her 14-year-old daughter's incarceration after she threatens her bullies with a gun. Rare access to the Sioux City Community School District captures up close and disturbing "on the ground" footage of bullying in classrooms, playgrounds, cafeterias, and school buses. Kids who are made into outcasts at school become the film's heroes as they defend their right to be different and courageously give testimony to the trauma and dangers of severe bullying. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

"The Bully Project"
World Documentary Competition
Director: Lee Hirsch
Producer: Cynthia Lowen, Lee Hirsch
Editor: Lindsay Utz, Jenny Golden
Director of Photography: Lee Hirsch
Executive Producer: Cindy Waitt
Composer: Ion Furjanic, Justin Rice, Christian Rudder
Supervising Editor: Enat Sidi
Additional Editor: Jenny Golden

Responses courtesy of "The Bully Project" director Lee Hirsch.

Photographer to documentary filmmaker...

I began as a photographer. I distinctly remember asking myself, sometime in my teens, "what if I could make these images move?" Out of that thought, documentary film became the form that was most appealing and natural to me.

After high school, I was under heavy parental pressure to become a lawyer or something of the sort, but instead set out to put the notion of being a filmmaker to a test - I would give it one shot, make a short documentary, and out of that answer one question: Did I love doing it? That film became “The Last and Only Survivor of Flora,” an intimate portrait of Nathan Solomon, my godfather, who was the last Jewish survivor of his native town in Poland following World War II. At the age of 94, he was working as a courier on Wall Street, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trades between financial firms, dressed in tatters, and whose past was unknown to those around him. The process of making this film answered that question: I did love doing it.

From there the activist component of the films I’d seen as a kid became a powerful part of my drive - Richard Attenboro's “Cry Freedom” so moved me at 15 that I became an anti-apartheid activist. This ultimately led me on the 10-year-long journey to my first feature documentary film, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” about the role music played in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

A personal project...

“The Bully Project” is a deeply personal film for me, having been bullied as a kid, so this question is a loaded one. It's a film I’ve wanted to make for years, arguably since middle school. I recently found early treatments for the project dating back to 2003 - so it took a long time to get up the courage to start the project. Once we began, my producing partner, Cynthia Lowen, and I originally set our sights on much broader question about bullying, on a journey from the playground, to the workplace, to international politics and conflict - connecting all these aspects together to make a much broader film. As we got into the development phase, it quickly became clear that the most compelling stories were those from the teens and families we were meeting, so the framing began to be around schools and kids and we decided to set the story within one school year.

Keeping a low profile...

One of my biggest goals was to be able to witness bullying as it occurs and not shy away from it, in doing so, we could depict the violence and cruelty that bullying is and dispel long-held perceptions about bullying, such as “boys will be boys.” I also wanted the film to be intimate and raw. Thanks to the rise of DSLR's, I decided to shoot it myself, using a Canon 5d Mark II. This allowed me to have a very low profile, throw away lights and other tools, and made it much easier to be a fly on the wall. We also asked all participants -- kids and adults and schools -- to be partners with us, so that there was a sense of mission behind the often difficult moments that were being shared.

Gaining access to the kids...

There were many challenges around access. In most of our stories we could not gain access or cooperation from the schools involved, but we knew that to tell the story we needed to be on the inside. We were very fortunate to be introduced to the school board of the Sioux City Community School District, in Iowa. They gave us a chance to share the vision and challenges for the film, and ultimately, to tell a story that will make a difference. They granted us access for the 2009/2010 school year and have been an extraordinary and brave partner.

The cutting room floor...

Given the sensitivities around the subject matter, we began filming a number of stories that we had to abandon. One was particularly painful: We had been filming the story of a single mom and her son, who was in the 8th grade. He was the victim of years of relentless bullying, and his mom was in a protracted fight with the school system. After multiple shoots and developing a strong relationship, the family reached a settlement with the school district that included a gag order, which meant for the family to receive compensation from the schools for the bullying that the 8th grader had endured, they had to withdraw from the film and never mention publicly that their child had been bullied. There remains an enormous amount of silence and shame associated with bullying and this was a painful reminder of that.

Spreading the word...

We are busy building a strong community engagement and outreach movement for the film, which you can track on our website, www.thebullyproject.com. Creatively, I am pursuing some narrative ambitions as well as looking forward to getting back on the road to continue a series of commercials for a project I created during the 2008 elections called "Local voices for Obama," which will be expanded upon for the 2012 elections.

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4 Comments

  • shelley rottenbergq | March 29, 2012 7:06 PMReply

    I have been waiting for this film to reach the general population! Bullying is not just kids on kids; bullying is kids on teachers! I am a substitute teacher in a middle to upper middle class public school system that one would think that kids would have been taught how to be kind...not on your life....these kids don't just bully their classmates but also their teachers! This is an epidemic here in the US and it's only getting worse. I have actually had kids in 7th grade boast about how they "had a teacher fired". If this could ever be addressed I think that things would change dramatically in our young society of children. Why not consider adding the "bullying" of teachers and administrations by kids who are all too aware that the public school system has their hands tied by possibilities of lawsuits! Something needs to be done and done soon. I quit teaching in the "good" middle school because of these bullying occasions//Let's see if we can do something.

  • David Halstead | May 6, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    I had the good fortune to listen to Lee Hirsch being interviewed on CBC Radio. Lee you are, of course, right on. I am the author of the The Bully Around the Corner: Changing Brains-Changing Behaviours. This book is being used in schools in Canada, USA, Great Britain , New Zealand and Australia. The challenge is always to get educators and other responsible adults to appreciate the complex neural nature of bullying and the affects that it has upon the bullies themselves, their victims and the general atmosphere of the school and the community.
    Once we begin to understand the neural reasons for bullying it then becomes possible to address the problem in a more effective manner. Unfortunately the resolution is not a one step process. Note to all workers in this area. Never, never say "Don't let me catch you doing this again." Last note "Victims of bullying are more likely to be punished than the bullies themselves."
    David Halstead
    Co-Founder and Lead Researcher and Trainer
    Brain Power Learning Group
    www.brainpowerlearning.com

  • Ross Ellis | April 23, 2011 8:58 AMReply

    Kudos to Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen. Don't know if I'll be able to make the TFF but I can't wait to see this. I remember when you were filming and we spoke about it. It's going to have a great impact! Congratulations on your hard work, passion and commitment and thank you for helping to make life safer for our kids and teens!

    Ross Ellis
    National Media Expert on Violence Against Children
    Founder and Chief Executive Officer
    STOMP Out Bullying
    Love Our Children USA

  • Edward F. Dragan, EdD | April 22, 2011 9:17 AMReply

    This is a most important project and film. I will be seeing it on April 26th the day that my book, "The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and How to Get Your School to Listen" will be released. School should be a place where children feel safe and secure--a place where they can count on being treated with respect. The unfortunate reality is that many students are the targets of bullying, resulting in long-term academic, physical, and emotional consequences. School personnel often minimize or underestimate the extent of bullying and its harm. In many cases, bullying is tolerated or ignored.

    Edware F. Dragan, EdD, Author and Education Expert