'The Bully Project': A Film Takes On Harassment, From Iowa to Tribeca

An interview with documentarian Lee Hirsch about one of the most talked-about movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival


The Bully Project

One of the most talked-about movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, The Bully Project, shines light on a serious problem: More than 5.7 million U.S. schoolchildren are involved in bullying each year.

In The Bully Project, documentarian Lee Hirsch conducts a cross-country examination of bullying, looking at a Sioux City, Iowa teenager tortured for being different, a lesbian high school student in Oklahoma, families who lost their bullied children to suicide, and other case studies. Securing a distribution deal with the Weinstein Company yesterday, the film is at once a devastating portrait of individuals tormented for being different and an inspirational depiction of communities standing up to right an egregious wrong. Here, Hirsch offers his thoughts on his hopes for the project.

It seems like bullying has gotten worse in recent years. Do you agree?

I don't know if I share that perspective. It's really deeply personal, based on our own experiences. I think maybe what's happening is that we're talking about it more and this sense it's gotten worse is because it's more acceptable to talk about it. We are seeing more correlations being made between young suicides and bullying, and I think that's creating this perception.

The other thing that I think has changed, which isn't so much an element in our film, is the cyber-bullying component. It can make it worse. . . . What's interesting is as we were out filming the film, the families and the kids we were meeting and filming with, cyber-bullying wasn't the thing. It was the sort of classic brick-and-mortars bullying that you and I remember. I don't know if it's getting worse or if we're just calling it when we see it more.

Why do you think there's such a groundswell of attention around the bullying epidemic?

I think part of what's happening is people are networked very well on Facebook that are aligned around this issue—in particular, a lot of the families who've lost children. So they kind of went and ran with it. As far as the groundswell, a lot of things have happened in the last six months. There's been a bullying summit at the White House. There have been major initiatives by CNN and Cartoon Network.

There are a number of things that are going to come together that are really exciting around The Bully Project. I would like to think that we are maybe at the beginning of a tipping-point moment, and that hopefully The Bully Project will be a piece of that and give something really tangible that people can hold on to and run with and feel moved through and then translate that into action.

What do you want young viewers in particular to take away from the film?

In the film, we've certainly shied away from any kind of legislative agenda. Rather, I think the focus, at least for us, especially because we're not experts, is to hopefully allow people to feel like they can make a difference. Particularly young viewers—that they can stand up, they can put a stop to it, they can step in on someone's behalf and that that's empowering, that's possible and that really will cause change.

How did you begin the process of finding your subjects?

Initially we were reading a lot of local stories. There were two high-profile suicides around the time that we started. Ellen DeGeneres had done a show with the moms. And there were so many comments on her webpage, close to a thousand, and many of them were from kids or families that were dealing with similar situations—that were, in effect, in crisis. Our first access break really came from producers of the Ellen show, who agreed to pass on e-mails to us of some of the families.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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