Sundance 2021 Interview: Jay Rosenblatt on the Burden of Memories in “When We Were Bullies”

Jay Rosenblatt had been looking for a collaborator when it turned out he found a classmate. Neither knew it at first when Rosenblatt had put out a call looking for someone to do narration for his 1994 short “The Smell of Burning Ants,” but as Richard Silberg read the script for the film investigating the rituals of masculinity, he asked the filmmaker whether he went to PS 194 in Brooklyn, knowing they both grew up in New York. A few questions later, they realized they were actually both in Mrs. Bromberg’s fifth grade class, even though both had made it out all the way to the Bay Area in the years that followed and Rosenblatt could only marvel as Silberg shared details from adolescence that sparked his own memories.

“Because of the trauma I was going through, I just blocked out a lot of that part of my life,” says Rosenblatt. “And Richard remembered all these details, so when he would say something, it felt right in my bones. Part of this film was seeing what other people could add to the kind of missing pieces that I had in regards to this experience.”

It would take Rosenblatt some time to make “When We Were Bullies,” but he would interview as many classmates as he could to put together a vivid picture of just one day that’s haunted him ever since, being a party to an ugly attack on a classmate nicknamed Dick (a moniker he didn’t choose but had to accept with three others Richards in the class). Hopping the fence to PS 194 along with Silberg to get a look at their old digs in the present day, the film sees Rosenblatt removing one barrier after another to memories he had locked away to understand not only his own role in the harassment of Dick but the entire class, including faculty, that enabled if not actually encouraged it to happen.

Playful animation featuring dancing class photos and a wily score filled with mischievous notes shrewdly accentuate how innocent teasing can harden into something painful and lasting and Rosenblatt tenderly looks back with perspective, not having to see the impact it had on Dick in later life to know the damage it’s done when taking responsibility for his actions involve shame, regret. and a greater understanding of how easy it is to marginalize our worst behavior in our own mind. “When We Were Bullies” is especially powerful nearly five decades after the day in question, allowing a long view that’s unusual to the cultural hot button topic and with the film making its official debut as part of the documentary shorts program at Sundance today, following its selection at the cancelled Telluride Film Fest last fall, Rosenblatt spoke about telling such a personal story, striking exactly the right tone for the sensitive subject matter and making a film that unites in a time of isolation.

How did this come about?

It was a story I used to tell at festivals, whenever I’d show that older film “The Smell of Burning Ants” because it was just such an amazing story, and a few years ago, I was having coffee with a friend and I told her the story. She had never heard it, and the first thing she said was, “Well, you should make a film about this.” I thought about it and [wondered], “Wow, what would that be like? How would I translate that into a film?” But her suggestion really stayed with me, so I decided to just explore it and look at all the different coincidences. Many of them are mentioned in the film. There were even more than that, believe it or not. Then I decided that I would track down my classmates and see what they remembered from this experience, so it grew from the coincidence.

It was slightly amusing to me that this all began because you can’t stand the sound of your own voice — like myself — so I wonder was it much of a consideration to tell a story in which you’re at the center of it like this?

Yes, and it’s not only my voice now, but I’m in it. I’m kind of an introvert by nature and I like being behind the camera, so it’s a big step. I have made a few diary, personal films and films with my daughter that I appear in to some extent, so this wasn’t the first time I was doing this, but it was a leap. I still don’t love hearing my voice, but I knew that this film had to use my voice or it wouldn’t make sense. It was such a personal film I had to appear in it. With “The Smell of Burning Ants,” I felt I could get away with someone else’s voice because the whole film is in third person, so it still talks about the boy and even though it’s mostly about me, I did interview a bunch of friends about what it was for them growing up male and different memories of cruelty.

This film I had to get over myself and just plunge in. I still felt uncomfortable with it, but I did a lot of takes with a friend of mine, who directed me in the voiceover because it’s hard to know how you’re coming across when directing yourself, but I feel better about it now in this stage of my life than I did 25 years ago.

You strike a really wonderful, inviting tone, which must’ve been difficult to figure out. What was it like to get right?

It was maybe the most challenging thing in the film was to hit the light tone because I knew it was a serious subject, but I didn’t want it to be overly heavy. Some of my films are very heavy and rightfully so because of the subject matter, but I always like adding some humor and levity to open people up so you can get through them. This film in particular, I really want it to straddle a certain playfulness and lightness with something that was more serious, and I think the style of animation that I chose, the music, and my writing, all of that added to create just the right tone. Even though it’s a serious subject, the actual event is so commonplace I didn’t want to overly dramatize it. I wanted there to be access for the audience, and one of my goals with this film is that while people are watching it and hopefully after, [they] actually think about their own lives and situations that they’ve been in that are similar.

At one point, one of your classmates says, ”Now bullying is the most disgusting thing I could imagine,” which was interesting given how even over the time you were making this, let alone from the ‘60s, there’s been a cultural shift in attitudes. Did it change your ideas about this?

Yeah, and the guy that said that in the film was one of the ringleaders actually, and it was interesting to hear him reevaluate his role. He said a lot of other interesting things that didn’t make it into the film, but he remembered talking and bullying this kid, and he said at the time he almost was not worthy of being bullied. That was his attitude. My own feelings have evolved in the sense that in “The Smell of Burning Ants,” I talk about myself as a collaborator — how I was like the fair boy throwing the punch, but not being the bully — but in making this film, I came around to the realization that it really isn’t a big difference between collaborating and being a bully. I think I was almost allowing myself to think that I was not as responsible because I was a collaborator and not the ringleader and I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s seeing the world and the enablers because without the enablers and without the complicity, bullies don’t have that much power. We see it all the time, [even] politically, so that was one of the realizations in the four years it took to make this film,. I’m not letting myself off the hook in the same way that I had done in the past.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

It’s in the film and it’s mainly the person we call Dick, the person that was bullied. When I started the film and when I wrote grant proposals, I had every intention of tracking him down and interviewing him for the film. I thought that would be the climax of the film and that people would be expecting that. I was expecting it myself. But the making of the film changed that. I started realizing that it really wasn’t about him, and [it might be] re-traumatizing him by bringing up something that he may feel very comfortable forgetting and not thinking about. So it didn’t seem necessary. In fact, it felt like it would be more powerful without him because then the viewer could put their own Richard in and their own wisdom, so I’m glad that that’s how it evolved.

You alluded to it earlier, but the animation is fantastic and obviously you make so much use of your old PS 194 yearbook. How did you develop the style of that?

Yeah. Jeremy [Rourke], the animator, is someone that I’ve known for a while and he does cut-out animation. It’s old style, analog, not computer generated at all, and I’m picky about animation because when it’s off in a film, it ruins it for me, so I really was a fan of his style of animation and I approached him and I said, “Would you be interested in collaborating?” And he was open to it. And he does all different kinds of animation, not only cut-out, so a couple of months into working together, it occurred to me that I really want the animation to reflect my aesthetic. I work a lot with collage and sound footage, so I thought maybe the best thing to do is really come up with as many creative ways of using the class photo as possible. That made it grounded in the actual people that partook in this incident because we’re seeing their age. All the other styles we tried, even though they were interesting, they didn’t feel as organic to film. So I said, “Jeremy, let’s just pretty much just keep it to photos of all the [people] in the film, including myself.” So I’m the only one that you see at other ages in photos, but everyone else in the animation is from that class photo and we just brainstormed together different ways of showing that.

What’s it like getting in the finish line and getting this out into the world?

It’s been interesting because finished the film during the pandemic. Luckily, I shot everything and had done a lot of the editing [before then], but not all of it. And I’m thrilled that it’s having its world premiere at Sundance, but it isn’t how I imagined doing it. For three years, I was waiting for that moment — I’ve made a lot of films, and I was really looking forward to that moment in front of a live audience and feeling the energy, especially with this film since it took a long time. I’m not complaining because it’s great to start at Sundance, but I have no idea how it’s going to be received. I’m only going to see maybe some emails, so I’m just not going to have that visceral feeling in the room, so I’m hoping that the film has a long enough life that I’ll get to see it with audiences.

“When We Were Bullies” will be available to stream through the Sundance Film Festival beginning January 28th at 7 am MT.