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Interview with Lee Hirsch

When an office memo informed me of a screening of Bully and a Q & A with the director Lee Hirsch, I knew I had to meet with him. For those of you that may not know about this documentary, Bully gives us a harsh view into the lives of kids, the brutal reality of the bully culture, and the tragic toll it can take on them and their families. This documentary, for all of its accolades, received a lot of negative attention from the MPAA. Hirsch has been directing documentaries over the past 20 years, raised awareness on many important issues, and has deservedly won several awards. For these reasons, I was shocked at how quickly he responded to my informal tweet invitation to an interview with, “For sure.” It was a surprisingly casual response from someone I would have thought to have been off put by my stab-in-the-dark request.

Hirsch’s first feature documentary in 2002 was Amendla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, a film focused on how music was used to unify South Africans against Apartheid. I wondered what Hirsch’s connection to the subject was since his connection to Bully was so vital to the direction of the film.

“When I was in high school” he explained, “it was the end of the era of Apartheid and it was a very global movement. So, I was totally taken by the entire anti-Apartheid movement when I was a teenager. Filmmakers see things and I don’t know why they see what they do, but when it speaks to you, you have to go with it.” In regards to what specifically caught his attention, “I was just taken by the fact that they were singing. I wanted to know why. Was the music giving them strength? Was it bolstering their movement? Some people would look at that news footage and see 10,000 people in the street making noise, but I would see 10,000 people singing in four part harmony and that was totally inspiring for me.”

I was noticing that Hirsch’s documentaries followed a pattern of shedding light on human experiences that largely go unnoticed or misunderstood. “My stories are always about underdogs for the most part. As someone who was bullied and that has been through the shit that I went through, it’s not a total surprise that I would identify with the underdog. Through my work, I am constantly trying to answer questions like ‘How did they survive?’ ‘What unified them?’”

The Motion Picture Association of America, responsible for giving movies their ratings, initially thought Bully deserved an R rating for language used in the movie. Giving the documentary an R rating would almost ensure that most middle schools would not be able to screen it for their students thus excluding a majority of the intended audiences. The Weinstein Company, producers of the film, fought back against the MPAA saying that a lower rating was important to ensure that more students would be able to see this important film. The Weinsteins (a couple of Hollywood’s biggest producers) believed in this so much that they threatened to leave the PGA (Producers Guild of America) in support of the movie. Eventually, Hirsch edited some of the questionable language and the movie was given a PG-13 rating. There is also a kid’s version of the movie where the harshest language and mature themes regarding suicide are removed.

The themes and images shown in Bully were handled delicately by a director to which there was an obvious personal connection.

I asked, “Was it particularly hard to witness the bullying first hand without being able to step in?”

“Yeah, it was definitely really hard but I think a couple things were going through my mind at the time. One was that I felt like I had this job to bear witness…because if we didn’t show it, then people would continue to be able to deny it and also it mattered that Alex knew my presence there was for solidarity, that Alex knew that I had his back.” Hirsch went on to explain how some of the bullying was happening right in front of him without even knowing. “On the first bus ride, I didn’t know he was being bullied until the edit room because I didn’t monitor the audio. But there were other times when I did know and it certainly was hard.

Filming the documentary wasn’t just a series of unfortunate realities. Hirsch believes that there were some bright spots. The kids themselves “were extraordinary,” the parent’s standing up for their children, and the thousands of anti-bullying events that have been planned in the wake of the documentary’s release. Stand for the Silent is an organization started by the parent’s of one of the film’s subjects and has been widely promoted across the country. Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises came from Alex.

“To see (Alex) freed, was a bright spot. Alex has Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of Autism that is characterized by an impaired ability to interact socially) and in fact all of the kids at Alex’s school that had Asperger’s were being bullied. But now, Alex is sort of a spokesperson for The Bully Project and we were able to raise money and send him to a special boarding school.

Alex’s school was the only school that would allow Hirsch to film the documentary there, a movie that Hirsch calls “incredibly courageous.” None of the other subjects of the movie had school districts that were comfortable enough to allow Hirsch to focus an unflinching eye on the school’s social climate. As a result, the audience is introduced to the representative of the modern school administration’s view of bullying; Assistant Principal Kim Lockwood. If there is a specific antagonist in Bully beyond the act of bullying, most would consider Kim Lockwood to be the antagonist. This is a notion not lost on her either.

Hirsch said half-jokingly/half-seriously, “Kim doesn’t like me very much” in regards to how she reacted to the movie. “But when we had the screening in Sioux City, Iowa we expected a few hundred people and 1,700 people came. After the movie, Kim got up in front of everyone and apologized for how she handled the situation.”

It’s easy to get lost in Lockwood’s behavior in the movie until the realization that hers was the only school that had cameras there. The same attitudes toward bullying could very well be carried over into schools across the country, but because Lockwood is the only representative brave enough to be on camera, she becomes the personification of what we fear is happening everywhere. How can we fight that fear? Hirsch doesn’t have the answers but he did offer a great first step.

“The most important thing that parents can do is get transparency. To do that, they have to build a good relationship with the school. The assistant principals are on the front lines with disciplining the students. Get involved with your children and their teachers so that these conversations can happen when they need to.”

That transparency leads to awareness which is the ultimate goal of The Bully Project the foundation started by Hirsch. “Awareness is a goal and I feel like we kind of hit that goal. Now, I am fundamentally occupied with how do you transform school culture? The idea being that any one individual should be able to affect change and shift the climate of the school.”

The question then becomes how you can change the notion that “kids will be kids?” Hirsch believes it stems from teaching emotional and social learning like empathy. “Making sure that students and teachers are connected is a movement within education and The Bully Project is a way of getting there. It’s not like taking down the Berlin wall. It’s additive work and it’s exciting to see more schools embracing that kind of educational reform at scale.”

What’s next for Hirsch? Will he continue tackling social issues with documentaries or will he helm a genre film in the near future? Can we look forward to a reboot of Canadian Bacon? “I would love to do a narrative film and I am pursuing it quite aggressively. I just haven’t found the right project yet. I am really satisfied with my work right now with The Bully Project. It’s a full time commitment and eventually we’ll seed it to non-profit type life-long professionals and I’ll go back to being a film director solely. But right now I feel like I am doing good, it keeps me going.”

The big milestone for The Bully Project is to screen Bully to 10 million students. So far, roughly 2.6 million students have seen this important documentary and if any of them are half as passionate as Hirsch is, I believe him when he says “this generation is going to be the one to turn the tide on bullying. I see a lot of hope.”

For more information on The Bully
Project please visit TheBullyProject.com

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