What were some of the bright spots; what surprised you?
The kids are extraordinary. They had this emotional intelligence that dwarfed the adults.
A bright spot was Alex’s story…to see him freed. 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 bullied.
Now, Alex is sort of a spokesperson for The Bully Project.
We were able to raise money to send him to a special boarding school.
Recently, he was given an award in L.A. from Sean Kingston “drop some rhymes” and he proceeded to freestyle.
I saw hope in the parents standing up and in the thousands of events that have been planned its wake.
How did Asst. Principal Kim Lockwood react to the movie? Did she evolve as a result?
Kim doesn’t like me very much.
The school that allowed us to film was incredibly courageous. 90% of the schools we asked to film in said no.
In Sioux City, the movie screening was estimated to have a few hundred attending and instead 1,700 people came. After the movie, Kim got up in front of the crowd and apologized for how she handled the situation.
But the transparency that her school was brave enough to allow is so important to assessing school and social climate. Because that school allowed filming, we have the opportunity to inspire people to look into this issue of bullying, have screenings, and invite conversations.
The most important thing parents can do get transparency is to build a good relationship with the school. Get involved with your children and their teachers so that these conversations can happen when they need to.
Why did one of the bully’s remain anonymous while the others were allowed to be filmed?
The release process was very complicated. After filming was complete, we went to each family of the bullies featured in the film, and there were 29 that we approached. 28 signed the release because they agreed that it was important that their child’s actions were seen. The parents felt they didn’t know what was happening and this movie opened their eyes. The only family that didn’t sign was that of the high school student at the bus stop in the beginning of the film because Sioux City is a place where a lot of families don’t stay for long. They just pass through. So, we weren’t able to locate the family to sign off, that’s why he was blurred.
What is the age group of the movie?
It is rated PG-13 but there is a kid’s version available where some of the harsher language is removed and the suicides are also removed.
Obviously, the documentary Bully is a very personal experience. I think that’s why a lot of people can connect with it and why it’s gotten so much attention. Was it particularly hard to witness the bullying in the movie and not just immediately want to step in?
Yeah, it was definitely really hard. I think a couple things going through my mind at the time. One was I felt like I had this job to bear witness, to show what happens because if we couldn’t like show it then people would continue to be able to deny it. So part of me felt like it was important to be witness and to be witness for Alex. I know Alex wanted people to know what was happening. I guess I felt like, I didn’t always know what was happening. Sometimes I couldn’t hear, because I didn’t monitor the audio so like the first bus ride for example I didn’t know that he was being bullied ‘til the edit room. But there were times when I knew and it was really hard. I think for me it also mattered that Alex knew that my presence there was solidarity, that I was there for him and that I had his back. And ultimately we did intervene you know we did go and talk to the school and showed them the footage. But it was certainly hard.
You have done documentaries before. You had the Apartheid documentary, what was your inspiration to work on that subject?
That’s a good question. I mean I think, when I was in high school it was the end of the era of Apartheid. It was like the final arc of the struggle to end Apartheid and it was a very global movement. So I was totally taken by the entire anti-Apartheid movement when I was a teenager. I don’t know what it is, filmmakers see things and I don’t know why they see what they see but when you see something and it speaks to you, you have to go with it. I was just taken by the fact that people were singing. Like, I wanted to know why are they singing? Is that music giving them strength? Is it bolstering their movement? Is it leading to this peaceful struggle that was so moving for people to observe? Some people would look at news footage and see 10,000 people in the street making noise. I would see 10,000 people singing in four part harmony and that was totally inspiring for me.
I went to high school with a girl from South Africa and to her Apartheid made sense. She defended it in class one day saying it made sense to keep the white people separate from the black people because they would fight and the rest of us were like “Is that really what you are saying, out loud with your face?
(Laughing) With your face? Is your face really doing this?
It was so bizarre to hear someone defending it because it made sense. She grew up in that world. Black people over here and white people over here. Done and Done. To that effect, I thought it was interesting that even though you didn’t personally experience it you did see it happening and it spoke to you as a filmmaker.
I have always, my stories are always about underdogs for the most part. As someone that was bullied, as someone that has been through the shit that I went through, I felt like it’s not a total surprise that I would identify the underdog. How did they survive? What unified them? What got people off the sidelines? That’s a question that I am constantly trying to answer through my work.
You hope to bottle that and be able to get people moving. Are you wanting to continue with documentaries or are you hoping to a genre film like Michael Moore did with Canadian Bacon?
That’s a great question. 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 have an agent reading scripts. I almost did a dark thriller set in the world of high school cheer-leading that had Natalie Portman attached but it went to a different director. I’m really satisfied with my work right now with The Bully Project it’s a really 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.
You mentioned The Bully Project and I know one of the goals is to screen it for 10 million students and you have already hit 2.6 million. What are the other goals of the Bully Project? I’m sure awareness is one of them.
Yeah, I think awareness is a goal. I feel like we kind of hit that goal. I think that was an initial thing. Now, I am fundamentally occupied with how do you transform school culture? How do you work with educators, advocates, parents? The idea being that any one individual should be able to affect change and change the climate of the school. Our work is focused around this concept or set of beliefs in education called social and emotional learning. So, I believe fundamentally that schools need to rethink some stuff. And think about how do we teach empathy? How do we make sure that adults have positive connections to students so that no one is going through their years in school without thinking anyone has their back? How do you teach kids to make moral and ethical decisions? How do you teach kids what it means to stand up, to regulate their emotions? This is a movement within education and Bully is a way of getting there. So, bullying can be decreased through increasing a school’s capacity to do this kind of work. And I think it can be done within the system. It’s not like taking down the Berlin Wall, it’s like additive work and it’s exciting and I think that’s our goal; to see more schools embracing that kind of educational reform at scale. That’s what we seek to do through the Bully Project.
I think you said it best earlier that you can’t go after bullying with an offensive strategy. You can’t just say” the system’s not working, let’s wipe it out because that’s what the problem is because you will hit opposition just based on principal. So, you have to work within the system to teach people empathy.
Inspire people, yeah.
Did the Principal ever get involved or did you only deal with the assistant principals?
That’s an interesting question. Most of the other schools wouldn’t talk to us. Jameya’s school, we had no access. We have a video that has been making the rounds on upworthy.com the last two days of this little boy named Keene. I filmed him extensively, he’s not in the movie but that school wouldn’t talk to us. The Murray county schools where Tyler Long went to school wouldn’t talk to us. In East Middle school, where we had this incredible access, working with the school board, working with the superintendent, the principal just wasn’t that present. He’d also had health issues that year so it was kind of like our world was the assistant principals.
That probably worked to your benefit in the movie because the assistant principals deal with the children more than the principal does. To talk to the principal would be like a false front.
They are kind of more on the front lines with discipline. But it depends. I believe that when it comes to school culture, the principal sets the tone for the building, followed by the assistant principals just like the captain of a sports team sets the tone and a teacher sets the tone for the classroom. It would have been great to have more involvement from the principal but that just not always the case. We told the story that we saw.
Do you think that if your generation had seen a film like this that it would have had an effect? Or do you think that bullying has come to such a point that this is going to be the most effective way to go?
God, I don’t know. That’s like forecasting that I can’t see. I remember there were some films that were pretty substantial when I was a kid like there was a fire safety film. I believe that this generation is going to be the generation that turns the tide on bullying. I believe it with all my heart and I think that it’s not just the Bully Project; we’ve had incredible support from government, from media, from celebrities, from corporations like Wal-Mart. I really feel that there is a collective sense that we can do this. If we come together and if we’re smart, we aren’t going to wait for government to pass some law that’s going to solve the problem. I think people understand that it’s a hearts and minds opportunity and challenge. I see a lot of hope.
Thank you very much for agreeing to sit with me.
Oh it was a pleasure. Thanks for reaching out to me.