'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.

How about getting the Sioux City Community School District on board to let you film in one of its schools? That must have been a challenge.

One of our funders has been doing bullying- and violence-prevention work in the Sioux City area for 10 years. That's the Waitt Family Foundation. They have been highly supportive of bringing programming and helping out in the Sioux City Community School District. They were able to facilitate an introduction to the superintendent, the school board, and the administrators of the district. We told them what we wanted to do in a series of meetings and presentations to the school board and asked if they would consider it. And they decided to allow us to film inside their school.

What do you make of their willingness to be involved, and to take some of the heat that comes with the film's depiction of their inability to effectively combat in-house bullying?

It's a tough thing, because a lot of the emotional blame in the film gets made on the administrator that you see. It's tough. I mean the reality is that they were pretty amazing to allow us to do what we did and to stand behind the film. The administration was at the premiere—the superintendent came to New York to be with us—and one of the things they've said and stood by, even if the outcome doesn't make them look great, is, "If we do this, not only will we learn, but maybe we can help other schools, other administrators and help make a difference." I think it was a really brave and generous position that school district took. I really applaud them.

To really reach people, a film like The Bully Project obviously needs to be shown not just on the usual release platforms, but in special screenings on a community level. What's an example of how you plan to do that?

We were approached by the Philadelphia City Council, in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia. They're busy planning a Bully Project day for back to school, which is super-awesome. The components are: The film will screen at the National Constitution Center, hopefully with major guests from government, possibly celebrities, hopefully some of the families in the film. We'll have a kids representative from all the schools, and each school in the district will be screening it at the same time in their buildings. Then we'll have a video-conference Q&A across the schools, with the Constitution Center event. Then they'll break up into groups and spend the rest of the day discussing, talking, and working out their feelings that come from the film.

What's more interesting is that there are already student leaders planning that event now for back-to-school. It's got a lot of support behind it, but there's a massive student component, so they can take ownership of it. . . . That's the kind of thing that's really powerful. If we can do more of those, if that becomes the model, that would be a dream come true.

Read all of The Atlantic's Tribeca Film Festival coverage.