Interview: Lee Hirsch on Finding the Strength to Take On “Bully”

Although there’s no way Lee Hirsch could’ve predicted the fate of his new documentary “Bully,” the recent fight over the rating of the film with the MPAA that’s brought it to prominence is hardly the first he or the film have had to overcome. At the film’s premiere last April at the Tribeca Film Festival, Hirsch poured his heart out about how he was bullied personally in middle school and sought to create an “undeniability” around it that he never could as a child. With perspective, both of time and of his profession as an award-winning filmmaker – his 2002 film “Amandla!” shed light on how music help bring down apartheid in South Africa — he was able to channel any residual anger and frustration he had into something positive.

Powering through two months of phone calls chasing down leads before ultimately spending the 2009-2010 school year in Sioux City, Iowa, Hirsch has made a film that not only achieves his goal of “undeniability” in portraying the ugly reality of vicious namecalling and brutality that far too many kids face on a regular basis, but in the hope that change could happen with the story of Alex, a kindly, socially-awkward 12-year-old whose own sister tells him, “Kids don’t like you at my school,” an understatement considering the constant harassment towards him turns physical. His story is augmented by the equally devastating stories of Kelby, a 16-year-old in Oklahoma who went from a beloved basketball player to an outcast when she came out as a lesbian, and Ja’Meya, a Mississippi 14-year-old facing 22 counts of assault with a deadly weapon for taking a handgun to school after being taunted enough.

Of course, these three stories, along with the accompanying struggles of two sets of parents who lost children much too young as a result of bullying, only skim the surface of a problem Hirsch identifies as being as much on a systemic level as it is on an individual one, with startling footage of various school administrators ineffective, if not downright uninterested, in creating a safe environment for its students. Fortunately, “Bully” is investing in an entirely new infrastructure, built from the same groundswell that has produced the “It Gets Better” campaign and has united once lonely voices in a common cause with new technology, even though Hirsch began working on the project long before bullying became a national focal point. But as Hirsch told me in a recent interview, timing was everything for “Bully.”

LeeHirschBullyYou’ve said previously that you’ve been thinking about making this film since 2003. What made you pull the trigger now?

Probably longer. I’d been wanting to make this film for a while. I was struggling with what would my next film be and what matters and what’s important. It clicked that this is the time. I [was] ready to do it, because it wasn’t just making the film. It’s processing my own history and it just felt like the thing I needed to do. You ever buy a car and suddenly you just see red Toyotas all over the road [and think] there’s so many red Toyotas? Once you start, you’re seeing the news about the suicides and how much hurt there is out there, it just locked that this was something that I had to do.

By filming in 2009, you started before there was a heightened level of media attention to bullying, but once there was a greater awareness, did it feel as though there were competing impulses for you?  As a filmmaker, you’ve got to think you’re tapping into something with plenty to explore, but as an observer, it must’ve been devastating to see that more material for your documentary meant more victims of bullying.

I’m choosing to look at it as a positive. I’m choosing to say that this is a tipping point where we’re more aware than we’ve ever been about how much people are struggling. Like you said, there is this double-edged sword of God, so much of it is driven by tragedy, but the fact is people are talking about it. They’re engaging, they’re mobilizing on various platforms – on Facebook, as fans of Lady Gaga — they’re mobilizing in so many different directions and saying we don’t want this to be our narrative. We want to talk about this. This is an issue affecting youth, youth are owning it and I see our opportunity as a positive opportunity. In that sense, we’re very fortunate to be a part of it.

The timing also seems to have worked in your favor in terms of the technology. After all, you’ve said YouTube is where you found some of your leads and both that and some of the cameras you used like the Canon 5D Mark simply didn’t exist in 2003. How did that change what you might’ve done initially?

The 5D was a gamechanger for me as a filmmaker. It put the whole apparatus of filmmaking in my hands for the first time and I felt really empowered by the technology to not have all the money and not have all the answers, but just start. And I say that to young filmmakers all the time – just start, just do it. It’s cheap enough that you can make mistakes and you can learn as you go. With this film, a lot of what the ultimate narrative became was crafted and evolved over the course of the year of production [between 2009 and 2010]. In other worlds and other times, you couldn’t shoot for a year unless you were funded by the World Bank. [laughs] You’d have to figure it all out and go shoot for a month and hopefully you had your story. So we were very fortunate and in terms of accessing stories, people being able to write into blogs and tell their stories, there are certainly elements that changed my access.

Alex’s story is central to the film and Sioux City appeared to be your base of operation – would you hear of kids in other communities and have to quickly mobilize to capture their stories? 

Sioux City wasn’t based on news. It was based on working and reaching out to lots of communities and trying to find a partner to allow us to film inside their school district. Sioux City was really a miracle to get a district willing to put themselves out there and to be honest and real about their problems that other districts have that they’ll deny or ignore or won’t talk about. So [the fact that they] made the choice to be part of this film and that this would make them better was a breakthrough for us. Alex’s story emerged out of that, being there, seeing the dynamics and finding a story there.

But for instance, when you learned of Kelby in Oklahoma, was it like a mad rush to get your camera crew to her hometown of Tuttle?

The camera crew was me. [laughs] But with Kelby, we didn’t have access inside the school. They wouldn’t let us in. They did, for like a minute, but we couldn’t shoot the way we did in Sioux City. So the filmmaking was different. It was more like we could just say “hey, we’re going to come out for a couple of days and talk with you guys.” It was engaging in a different way.

BullyProjectWas it different for you as a filmmaker from your first film “Amandla,” which was a reflection, versus being in the moment here?

As a filmmaker, I think this is my greatest work and being able to be inside scenes and be in the room as things are unfolding was really exhilarating. The choice of being very low-key with a 5D, all of it just really clicked for me. It was very liberating creatively and it’s definitely true – “Amandla” was so much about memory and reflection, sort of built to happen, whereas with this, it was so urgent. It was just like a train barreling forward. 

The screening I was at during last year’s Tribeca Film Festival felt almost like a religious experience in how the crowd reacted at the screening, so I imagine that was hard to top, but have you had a particular favorite moment while you’ve been on the road with this film?

Just seeing Alex find his voice and having him get a standing ovation and there were all these supermodels [at Tribeca] there hanging out with him.

I saw him out of the corner of my eye just before this interview, so if he’s at the Mondrian in Hollywood [where this interview occurred], he’s got to be living it up.

Yeah, he’s at Mondrian! [laughs] He’s like “Yo, what’s up.” He’s a totally different kid today than he was then and I’m super proud of him. We’ve had some great moments with the families and people being really thankful, feeling like they’ve been given a voice through this film. Realizing that there’s more of us than we thought [has been great] and that there’s lots of people who share this experience and are happy to have a film that helps them narrate that.

“Bully” opens in New York at the Angelika and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood, the Landmark and the AMC Century City on March 30th.

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