At the New Zealand International Film Festival, documentarian Lee Hirsch makes a stand.
The most shattering documentary you’ll see this year, Lee Hirsch’s Bully, by virtue of its heartbreaking subject matter, defies political definition, though that needn’t mean it overlooks political correctness. Framed around testimony from the family and friends of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley—two victims of school bullying who took their own lives, the latter at the unfathomable age of 11—the film’s expose is two-fold in the staggering denial within the American school system it encounters, as well as the helplessness experienced by the victims who attempt to stand up to the bullies. One scene, in which a boy is forced to shake the hand of his tormentor as a dubious truce at the behest of a teacher, is especially enraging, and it begs the question why self-defense is often punished more severely, while the bullies are able to continue to harass their victims with shocking impunity.
Hirsch’s documentary has no immediate answer for this inconsistency given it humours neither the wooly liberal nor the right wing aggressor, though it does reach a verdict both sides can surely agree on: that no kid should ever have to resort to violence to protect themselves. In addition to examining the grief and anger in the aftermath of tragic youth suicide, Hirsch takes us inside an Iowa middle school whose tour guide, 12-year-old Alex, is repeatedly subjected to taunts and physical harm on the bus ride to and from school. Here, the film captures the most insidious form of bullying: not the fist fighting, extreme abuse, and pack mentality we picture when we think of the archetypal bully, but the teasing, intimidation, and mean-spiritedness that exists, almost invisibly, in a typical school environment. Later, when his father urges him to fight back, the boy offers no response; a silent protest of the shortsightedness of retaliation. The forlorn figure of 14-year-old Ja’Meya—who was so desperate to end the abuse that she borrowed her mother’s handgun and pointed it at her classmates—is juxtaposed against Alex’s passivism, but perhaps at the risk of ignoring what the bullies themselves are capable of. (Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian from Oklahoma, was deliberately hit by a vehicle driven by her classmates, though at no point is this act of aggression classified as a violent crime.)
As sensitively as Hirsch relays the stories of those who suffer in silence or try to speak out without being heard, there comes a point where he needs to confront the bullies themselves; to put them on camera and challenge their behaviour. Maybe that’s another documentary, though. Based on compassion and raw feeling, Bully’s narrow focal point does not allow for a full understanding of the issue—that would require the cowardly to participate, talking heads to pontificate, or wrecking-ball statistics to cut a swath through the emotion—and yet there’s something deeply moving about its allegiance to the victims first and foremost. Through this personal lens, the responsibility of others is also brought into sharp focus; indeed, for Alex, Ja’Meya, and Kelby, facing up to the bullies on their own is clearly not enough. In addressing this appalling social problem, as well as the complicity of bystanders either unwilling or unable to step in, Hirsch’s film must be commended for making its own stand. Hopefully, others will follow.