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'Bully' director talks about film's impact
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch hoped to start a national movement dedicated to stopping the practice of bullying in the United States, but he never quite expected his documentary, Bully, to have such a galvanizing effect. However, he probably didn't anticipate the marketing skills of Harvey Weinstein, head of the Weinstein Company, the film's distributor whose brilliant campaign to combat the movie's "R" rating by the MPAA resulted in creating a national discourse on the film's subject before it even opened.

Hirsch refused to cut graphic language hurled at the bullying victims portrayed in his movie ("Bullying isn't pretty and language is a part of it," he told me) and Weinstein backed him—eventually opting to release the film without a rating where it has quickly packed theaters.

Although the movie is now rated PG-13, Weinstein's righteous grandstanding and Hirsch's artistic stance have granted Bully the attention one has hoped for it—and for the everyday heroes the movie spotlights. Said heroes include Alex, the-12-year-old outsider, Kelby; the 16-year-old lesbian, and the others—including the families of those who took their too young lives after the onslaught of bullying became too much.

Hirsch, not surprisingly, is articulate and passionate about his subject.

Windy City Times: I have to tell you that, as a middle-aged gay man and a victim of bullying myself, I wasn't sure that I could make it through your movie. It brought back the horror of junior high school—the worst time of my life. For gay kids, bullying is like a double whammy.

Lee Hirsch: Well, I'm really glad you made it through the movie. I think what's extraordinary about this film is that it's giving voice to a lot of people that haven't felt like they had license to talk about these experiences before and that's really awesome; that's something very special, and I'm really energized by what you just shared. That's meaningful and thousands of people are coming to this film from a similar perspective, and that's doubly meaningful.

WCT: I'm curious: You, too, have been the victim of bullying and you do carry those psychological scars throughout your life—so how do you sit through the movie over and over again? It must be so painful. Or is it cathartic to see people "get it?"

LH: Truth be told, I don't sit through it a lot anymore. I sit through the beginning and the end. I've seen it a lot but it is cathartic. The thing that's really interesting is that each time I do watch it I get something different from it and it's very personal and it has a lot to do with my relationships with the subjects in the film.

I notice something different and it informs my experience and makes it deeper. Or I think about where they were in terms of where they are now; particularly with Alex and Kelby and I get sort of emotional. It's like the little things that strike me now with the film. But it is always cathartic to be with an audience after the screening; I really appreciate those opportunities.

WCT: Obviously, you've been in all the urban cities with the movie but (and here's a stereotype coming into play) maybe they're a more enlightened audience, but what about these more rural areas—what's the response there?

LH: Well, we just showed it in two of the cities where it was made and we thought 400 people would come; 1,600 people turned out and we had the most robust conversation. Here's the thing: Bully is not a political film. It is not divisive. It is not a red-state or a blue-state film. Yes, it's possible—I made a documentary that doesn't cater to the left or the right. It's about something that's totally above that. In a time when our country is really divided I actually think this film has the potential to bring communities together without that being an issue and that's been my experience and I'm pretty psyched about that.

WCT: You're seeing all audiences have a change of heart after seeing the movie?

LH: I'm seeing the enthusiasm for the subject and it's not just in New York and L.A. We're getting this response everywhere. It's a movie that everyone can come to and have a conversation around.

WCT: Let's talk a little bit about Kelby, the young lesbian featured in the movie. Talk about an amazing young person and her parents, equally, so. And yet, here again, she and her family are forced to move out of town to get away from the prejudice.

On one hand we seem to have more sensitivity about violence towards gays and lesbians, and less tolerance for those who perpetrate hate crimes. On the other hand, when you see something like this, it's obvious that bullying is where homophobia starts and maybe we haven't come so far.

LH: I think it certainly plays a role and I think when boys are bullied—regardless of their orientation—they're called fags. Girls are sluts and boys are called fags. It's designed to be as hurtful as possible and, absolutely, that's where it starts. And here again, this is why language matters, you know? Words matter.

I will tell you something that's inspiring. Kelby's whole thing when I met her was, "I want to make a stand; I want to make it so other kids don't have to go through what I went through" and she's no longer in that town but she probably wouldn't have been there, anyway. She's 19 now but at the end of my shooting period—this didn't make it into my film but I shot it—this eighth-grade boy came out in that town and wasn't being bullied and was doing really okay and had lots of friends and support, and Kelby and I talked a lot about how she had really paved the way for that and that her courage had paid off. So, I share that because I think that change is possible everywhere and that communities can be transformed and hopefully these stories will help along that way.

WCT: Thank you so much for sharing that, Lee. That truly is inspiring. I'm very curious about something—there's a point in the film with Alex where you decided to break the fourth wall and intercede when you filmed him being physically hurt by one of the bullies. What we don't see is the reaction when you showed the footage to the parents and to school officials. Why? I kept waiting for you to confront in that Michael Moore style.

LH: Well, I'm not Michael Moore!

WCT: No, of course not; of course not.

LH: But that's why this film is going to play in all kinds of communities and speak to all types of political persuasions. I feel like you just asked two questions. You know, like anything, when you're with a family and you're shooting them there's a trust and a relationship and there are things that you don't shoot. It's not in the film because I didn't shoot it because it wasn't appropriate. I wasn't working at that moment; I was being a friend.

WCT: I certainly get that, but what about the school officials or people who could have made a difference?

LH: Well, I did—I mean I shot the minute the parents walked in that morning and I revealed as much as I was able to.

WCT: Well, I guess that's just my wanting someone to call out that assistant principal or that bus driver, who both know damn well what's going on and do little or nothing. The indifference is frustrating.

LH: You're completing the stories now.

WCT: [Laughs] I am, I am—but isn't that what people do when presented with a subject like this? There's just a feeling of an overwhelming frustration that comes over you.

LH: Oh, it's infuriating and certainly very frustrating for that family and for those communities that those officials made those choices.

WCT: Well, did you talk to those officials, to the parents of some of those bullies? Or did you make a choice not to?

LH: It's a big narrative you're asking me about and, in another school we shot in, there's a radically different culture and they're actually doing a great job. We just didn't have a story there and, ultimately, film is about story that you can sort of stand by.

We filmed lots of people that are doing great stuff and really great work and there are people in Alex's school that are trying really hard to make a difference; the whole district is trying to make a difference. But the reality is that this is how it happened and for me it was just much more powerful to tell really all of these stories from the perspective of the kids and families. That was my choice. That's what I knew and understood.

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