Director: Lee Hirsch
Writers: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen
With: Alex, Kelby, Ja’Meya, Kirk & Laura Smalley, and David & Tina Long
I think for a documentary like Bully it makes sense to know about my school experience. I went to parochial school–Roman Catholic; coed for elementary and all-boy for high school. I was very good academically and participated in team sports. I classify myself as an in-betweener: neither a geek nor cool; neither shy nor outgoing; neither a bully nor bullied. My schools were not devoid of bullies, but from my experience and observation it was not a problem. All that being said, this film was an eye opener for me.
Bully begins on the hollowed-out eyes of David Long as he tells the story of his son, Tyler. From his eyes, his tone, his posture, you know Tyler is no longer with us. The film proceeds to tell us five stories of children who were or are bullied, the effect on their lives, and the effect on the lives of their families.
Alex is twelve and lives in Sioux City, Iowa. He was born early and, according to the doctor, not going to live. But he did. Socially awkward, he is continually hit, made fun of, and when not being abused totally ignored by the other kids. The filmmakers eventually get involved because they fear for his safety and show his parents and the school their footage.
Kelby is sixteen and lives in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Since coming-out she has been harassed, former team mates have abandoned her, and she & her family have been shunned.
Ja’Meya is fourteen and lives in Yazoo County, Mississippi. Her story could have easily been one of suicide, but instead of turning a gun on herself she turned it on her tormentors. Thankfully for all involved the day she took her mother’s gun onto the bus she was subdued by other students and no one was physically harmed.
Tyler was seventeen and lived in Murray County, Georgia. Initially an outgoing and fun-loving child, as he got order he became more quiet and awkward. As he got older his tormenting increased. One night he left a note on his desk and hung himself in his closet.
Ty was eleven, and we first see his story at his funeral.
Each of the stories is affecting in its own way.
Technically, Ja’Meya’s story is the “weakest”. We learn the least about her and what she endured. We are thankful she did not harm anyone and that she did not get the full penalty that could have been issued. But I felt as if her story was only included as a warning to parents about the dangers of what your children can do if pushed to the breaking point. An important warning, yes. But her story seemed to be missing information.
Alex’s story is the most detailed. Sioux City Schools, thinking they were going to be a beacon of how to handle bullying, allowed the filmmakers incredible access. Administrators, teachers, bus drivers all come across as out of touch or ambivalent–on certain occasions even chastising the victims. When confronted by Alex’s parents, the main administrator deflects by bringing a photo of her granddaughter into the conversation.
The most affecting story for me was that of Kirk Smalley. In an interview after Ty was laid to rest, his wife could not speak, but he could. He stood there a broken man wondering aloud how this could happen, but more importantly saying they are “nobodies” and if this had happened to someone powerful something would be done about it–bullying. I felt heartbroken hearing him describe himself, his wife, and his family as “nobodies”. But later a powerful revelation, shown and not spoken. We visit Kirk again, and he is wearing a wrist band that says “I Am Somebody”. And he is. He started Stand for the Silent to help end bullying and stand-up for those who cannot stand anymore.
The entire documentary is from the bullied’s point-of-view. There are no interviews with any of the bullies nor their parents. Creatively, this keeps the focus and the bias towards the bullied. Though it may not paint a fair picture, it is not fair that Tyler and Ty and scores of others are no longer with us.
Grade = A-