“Bully” Director Lee Hirsch: “I Didn’t Think I Was Making a R-Rated Film”

“It’s been a long day,” Lee Hirsch told me as he sat down to talk about his film “Bully” yesterday afternoon. That was a bit of an understatement.

Shortly before we were set to talk, Hirsch learned that the Motion Picture Association of America would uphold the R-rating they gave to his documentary about the challenges faced by high school kids and younger who suffer from incessant teasing at school and occasionally brutal physical abuse. Of course, that means that “Bully,” which the filmmakers and the film’s distributor The Weinstein Company have been actively trying to screen to teens for reasons akin to Dan Savage’s inspirational “It Gets Better” campaign, will have a substantially harder time of reaching the audience it was intended for.

We will have a longer conversation with Hirsch about an ultimately uplifting and what I feel is a pretty extraordinary film closer to its national release on March 30th, but I had to ask him how he felt about the MPAA’s decision to give “Bully” a “R” for “some language,” which involves a handful of expletive-laced threats out of the mouths of pubescents that the film chillingly points out would be overheard on any school bus in America. Sadly, when I saw “Bully” at the Tribeca Film Festival, I suspected the use of a few F-words might mean such a rating, so I wondered if Hirsch did as well. Here’s his response in full:

“I didn’t think about it because I didn’t think I was making a 'R'-rated film. I didn’t imagine that would happen. And it happened. So I think it’s really unfortunate that the MPAA couldn’t make that distinction and see the value and see the hypocrisy of some of the films that they have let out as a PG or a PG-13 that are so violent and terrifying and gory and have profanity as well. This is a film that all these national and international organizations and nonprofits, the Department of Education [and] people from education that work with these kids, that know their world — it’s a broad base and they’re behind it. And the MPAA is really potentially putting a huge wedge in between the kids that could see this movie and make a difference in really what feels to me to be a very arbitrary choice to give us this rating.”

What seemed to disappoint Hirsch the most, however, was that one of the film’s young subjects, Alex Libby, went with Harvey Weinstein to lobby the MPAA to appeal the film’s rating to score a more appropriate PG-13  and though the director wasn’t in the room with them, he said, “I saw the emotion when [Alex] came out and he was saying ‘I can’t see my own life. And other kids can’t see what we go through.’” Hirsch added, “I really feel very fortunate right now to have Harvey Weinstein willing to fight this fight because it’s meaningful.”

As someone who's seen the film, I can’t argue with Hirsch on that point and while some may be quick to dismiss the Weinstein Company’s effort to overturn the rating (and subsequently, the alleged threat to leave the MPAA’s rating system entirely) as a publicity stunt, it’s likely because they haven’t seen it – and terrifying to think that the MPAA has and could still give it this rating. Unlike any number of readily available cable news programs that have reveled in the lurid details of the inevitable schoolyard tragedies of recent years, “Bully” dares to portray the horrific behavior of bullies as it unfortunately exists as an average part of daily life for many children and by portraying it in as honest a way as has ever existed — Hirsch used a compact Canon 5D Mark so as not to draw attention to himself as a filmmaker to capture disturbing fly-on-the-wall footage – the film has been punished. For an organization that was intended to serve parents, in this case, the MPAA has failed them.

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