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Required Viewing for Parents: “Bully” Directed by Lee Hirsch

The film opens as a father watches home movies of a sweet baby boy who grows into a happy toddler before our eyes. He grows into a little boy and then a middle-schooler. As we watch the boy play and clown for the camera, his father describes him, but somberly and (we slowly come to realize) in past tense. We immediately recognize the worst and know this film is not going to soft-pedal the issue of bullying. 

Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully brings human scale to this much-discussed issue. It’s an unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, Bully opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids. It’s a remarkable and intimate peek into the lives of real kids—at home and at school—in a brave exploration of various communities’ efforts and failures to confront or effectively deal with this problem. 

For example, we meet 12-year-old Alex and get to see him at home with his parents, at school, on his school bus, and even at his bus stop, where neighborhood boys who should be his friends threaten him, forbidding him to even look at them. Later, Alex’s father encourages him to “punch back” at the kids who hit him on the school bus, as if the solution was an easy one. Viewers get to see the big picture of Alex’s life and just how complete and all-enveloping this world of intimidation is. 

Bully documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés. I admire the schools’ willingness to open their doors to scrutiny, but it’s frustrating to see a school principal order a bully to shake the hand of his victim. No great surprise when the bully is fine with it, but the victim flinches at the idea. The principal criticizes the victimized boy for failing to accept the “apology.” It would seem that the system—including life at home—continually puts the onus on the victim to either fight back or completely avoid contact with the bully, either “solution” reducing the life of the victim to a sad, lonely one. 

Bully is a deeply personal film for filmmaker Hirsch, “I was bullied throughout middle school and much of my childhood. In many ways, those experiences and struggles helped shape my worldview and my direction as a filmmaker.” Hirsch has managed to virtually disappear into the life of his subjects, often acting as videographer and sound person in one. The film is so beautifully composed, Hirsch’s camera work so lyrical, even poetic, it would seem beyond the ability of a one-person “crew.” 

I was warned by a friend to be “prepared to cry” when I saw this film, and was she ever right. But the film also offers real hope and practical solutions for the future. And Hirsch’s own site is a valuable resource to combating this problem. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. I think every parent and teacher should see this. Kids like Alex are depending on us to lead the way to a shift in our communities that will put a stop to this culture of despair. 

Bully is playing right now in select theaters and in theaters everywhere April 13th.

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