A familiar feeling I hadn’t felt since I was ten years old revisited my stomach at the Melbourne International Film Festival, as I looked into the eyes of a 12-year-old boy onscreen, questioning to his mother: “If you say these people aren’t my friends then what friends do I have?” It’s the feeling when you crave friendship from people despite knowing you aren’t welcome within their group, the feeling of just being able to say “I have a friend”.
Bully is an extraordinary documentary, produced and directed by Lee Hirsch, which delves into the lives of children who are bullied at school. Hirsch challenges the cliché that ‘kids will be kids’ through an entirely unfiltered documentation, presenting a confronting and honest reality of the progression of bullying among young people. Through the lens of a Canon 5d Mark II, Hirsch captures the stories of five families faced with the trauma and devastation of bullying, most significantly on the victim. Not only is the perspective of the bullied children portrayed but, perhaps more importantly, also that of the families of children – aged 11 and 17 – who took their own lives as a result of bullying; we are also given insight into one mother who awaits the trial of her incarcerated 14-year-old daughter.
Alex Libby is a kind-natured 13-year-old boy attending middle school. As one of the more prominent subjects in the documentary, we are taken into his life over a period of a year, and the inhumanity of the schoolyard is exposed. Despite Alex being strangled, punched, stabbed with pencils and having his head sat on, the principle of the school refuses to believe that the children on his bus are anything else but “good as gold”.
The reaction of the audience – as you can imagine – was one of complete disgust at the ignorance within the school administrations, and Hirsch’s film keenly expresses the danger inherent in the so-called “zero tolerance” values of schools, asserting that the intolerance of bullying is not holding an assembly once a year to reassure students that bullying is wrong, and it’s certainly not making a bully and his victim shake hands in the hope that tranquillity will be restored within the playground.
Tina and David Long lost their son Tyler in 2009 after he took his life as a result of constant bullying. Their story is one of intense grief, as they bring together the community to raise questions regarding the responsibility of school administration systems in dealing with bullying cases. Emphasising the importance of communication between children and parents and between schools and parents – echoing the other four families featured in the film – the Long family set out to promote the Bully project, which advocates for increased awareness of the serious effects of bullying in the hope that kids will start being kinder to one another. With such passion towards making a difference, David Long stated that to the community of Murray County, Georgia, “My voice is not going to go silent. I will not go to my grave until a difference is made”.
The most memorable scene within the film was the funeral of 11-year-old Ty, who – after being suspended for retaliating against a bully – shot himself. It is calamitous that a child of just 11 felt the only way out was to take his life. Hirsch follows Kirk Smalley, Ty’s father, as he seeks to make a change through Stand For The Silent, a social movement spread across America that aims at changing the behaviour of kids and recognising the unique power kids have towards those they consider inferior. Kirk travels to different states with the same message: “Go out there and find that one child who just moved to town, standing over there by himself; be his friend, smile, be willing to help him out when he’s pushed down, be willing to stand up for him. If we all do it together, we will change the world.”
Bully is an important film that needs to be seen by all schools and students across the country in order for people to start understanding the toll that bullying takes on children and their families. I couldn’t recommend this film highly enough.
Bully is screening at Cinema Nova from August 23. For more information on Stand for the Silent head to www.standforthesilent.org and for further information on the film head to www.thebullyprojet.com.