An interview with “Bully” director Lee Hirsch

Taking nothing away from the futuristic phenomena that is The Hunger Games, which opened to breaking records last weekend, there’s another movie that one can hope will garner more than a sliver of the attention as well as the huge box office – the documentary feature, Bully. The film opens in Los Angeles and New York this Friday and then spreads to other cities on April 13.

Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film follows a handful of teenagers and their families as they find their lives affected by bullying. Male or female, gay or straight, the film doesn’t differentiate the kinds of bullying but only that it’s happening every day to kids everywhere.

While much of the film follows Sioux City, Iowa teen Alex whose instances of being bullied are captured on camera, the cameras also document Tuttle, Oklahoma student Kelby, a 16-year-old out lesbian who tells stories of being bullied (by classmates as well as teachers) and how her own family had been labeled pariahs by the small town. However, even though her parents offer to move elsewhere, the strong-willed girl is not about to leave the small town or her adoring girlfriend.

Another student, Ja’Meya Jackson, 14 years old and living in Yazoo County, Mississippi, had been bullied for so long that she finally brandished a loaded handgun on a school bus to scare off her bullies. The film shows the teen living in a juvenile detention facility with multiple felony counts against her and hoping she can soon be released and go back home.

While much of the controversy lately has been about the film’s “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Weinstein Company announced on Monday that since the rating has not been changed after a petition garnered close to 500,000 signatures (including those from celebs like Ellen DeGeneres, Meryl Streep, Demi Lovato and Kelly Ripa), the film would be released as unrated.

AfterEllen.com spoke with Hirsch earlier this week about the outpouring of support for his film as well as making sure people are aware of the resources available to help yourself or other fend off bullies.

AfterEllen.com: What do you think it is that has people so behind this movie before many of them have even seen it?
Lee Hirsch: I think this is the time for bullying. I think that this is the moment where people have just had enough and there’s enough pro-active steam behind this issue that hasn’t had a voice and people haven’t had an outlet for it. It’s a thing that touches everybody whether you were bullied or whether you were a bystander. There’s a real need and people are sick of it so they want to make change happen and there’s so much great, organic stuff that’s happening like [Michigan high school junior] Katy Butler’s petition and certainly the support from Ellen [DeGeneres] has been extraordinary. That’s my best take on it.

AE: Up to this point, what has been the biggest surprise for you? I mean, did you expect any of this to blow up the way that it has?
LH: No, I certainly didn’t. I knew there was a need for the film. I knew that this was something that hadn’t been a movie [and] that had really spoken to this experience this way before. Certainly this is beyond my wildest imagination.

AE: How much of a challenge was it to not intervene when you were filming?
LH: It was but ultimately we did intervene. We intervened in a very significant way with Alex’s family and the school. Alex and I had talked a lot about what he was going through and what was happening and he knew that I had his back and that really mattered in those moments.

AE: With someone like Kelby, we see her talking about the experiences she’s endured but we didn’t get to see beyond that. Was that because you didn’t have access to the school?
LH: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Kelby’s story is more narrative than experiential. I wish we were able to have that kind of access but obviously that school was pretty hostile towards her. She’s amazing and she’s also become such a strong advocate. She’s awesome.

Kelby in Bully

 

AE: When you were finding the kids to talk to or to follow, was there thought of making sure you had some kids that were being bullied because they were gay? Or was that something that just came up as you found people.
LH: I knew it was important to have a student that was experiencing that for those reasons but — we could make this about LGBT bullying but I felt like it was important to expand the conversation and make this film really about all kids can be bullied and it happens to kids with special needs, kids that look funny — I think that there’s an opportunity to unite everyone around the issue of bullying so it was equally important to create a larger canvas and conversation.

AE: With all the different instances that you saw and different people you talked to — and this may be a naïve question — why are some kids bullied and some kids are not? Is there even an answer to that?
LH: I don’t know that there is an answer to that. I think some kids are better able to deflect it and make it stop than others. There’s not a particular rhyme or reason that I understand.

AE: You’ve stayed in touch with the families and the kids but what did you hear from them after they saw the film?
LH: Boy, the families have just been extraordinary. It’s been wonderful having them with us on this journey. They are the heart of this movie and the heart that beats in this movie and their honesty — they are all just very, very special and sort of my second family now so it’s been amazing.

AE: What can people do at this point to help put a stop to bullying?
LH: Through our website bullyproject.com there are multiple ways to get involved. We really want them to engage with us on Facebook, but sign the petition, sign up on our website, demand they show the film in your community and start looking at the resources and the way that you can help. There’s a lot of great stuff on the website. But come see the film! The biggest thing they can do is come see it and support it when it opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and more cities on the 13th of April. Folks don’t necessarily understand how important it is to turn up on opening weekend. That’s what helps it get out to many more communities. Signing the petition is one thing but getting your friends and going to the theater is another.

Alex, being bullied on the bus in Bully

 

For more on seeing Bully and to find resources if you or someone you know is being bullied, visit the movie’s website. You can also follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.

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