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.