Interview: Lee Hirsch, Director of “Bully”
In the new documentary "Bully," director Lee Hirsch takes on the painful but pervasive issue of bullying in schools. Through a small, brave sample -- a Sioux City, Iowa teenager tortured for being different, a lesbian high school student in Oklahoma, families who lost their bullied children to suicide -- of the many young people affected by bullying, the film seeks to be a comfort to those who may feel alone and a call to action for all. We spoke with Lee Hirsch to learn more about the selection process, his ratings battle with the MPAA, the movie's message to bystanders and more. Go see the film in theaters now and also check out our resources on bullying below this post!
What drew you to the issue of bullying?
Lee Hirsch: It was a very personal story, I was bullied as a kid and you carry those memories. As a filmmaker, I know you have to find stories that carry you, that are meaningful to you. This was something I’d been thinking about for many, many, many years. I kept picking it up and putting it down, not knowing how I could do it, or what I would say, or to what extent I would delve into the landscape of my own memories, and finally I felt ready to do it.
Once I started, I realized how much need there was. I wasn’t aware of the statistics when I started. I wasn’t aware of how broadly this impacts people. And I think that’s one of the powerful messages of the film: So many people share this story of having been bullied, having witnessed it, carrying those memories, feeling like they didn’t have a voice around this issue.
So it all really came together, and I felt like this was an important thing to do. That’s how it got started.
How did you find and ultimately select the kids and the families you followed in the film?
Lee Hirsch: A lot of the families we learned about through local news stories. Some we found, and I’m going to keep this broad because we filmed many more families than the ones in the film, like Kelby, her mom had written into The Ellen Degeneres Show about the abuse she was going through and how desperate they felt and how difficult it was. [Ellen's] producers agreed to put us in touch.
Alex is really the main story you experience in the movie. We met him because we had been given access at his school. We had been looking for access and talking to schools about being given access to film inside the school for a year. We met him on orientation day and it struck me that he might be a student who was bullied.
There were different ways, but we found these amazing kids and families that we ultimately selected and filmed for this project.
One of the most disheartening realities you capture in the film is the roadblock that some victims and parents encounter when approaching school administrators and other authority figures about bullies. Do you see this as a generational disconnect or something else? What is it that you felt these adults weren’t understanding?
Lee Hirsch: I think that the broader question is how can adults really step up here. We’re asking a lot of youth, we’re asking youth to step up, to be upstanders and not to be bystanders. They need partnership from their teachers, from school support staff, from administrators.
I think that there are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful teachers and administrators across our country. And I think that there are some that don’t get this issue, that don’t connect to it, that don’t have the empathy, the training, they’re overwhelmed. They feel like they’ve been given mixed messages about what’s a priority.
I hope that the conversation is a powerful one in the education space. I’m speaking to you right now from Washington D.C. where I’m about to screen the film for a very exciting crowd hosted by the NEA (National Education Association) and the AFT (American Federation of Teachers). We’re really engaged in this conversation in how do we support educators to take this on in a new and more powerful way, to give them the tools that they need. To give them the resources and the push.
On ReachOut we’re currently running a contest asking teen programmers to help empower bystanders to speak out against bullying, so I was just curious what message do you hope the film sends to those young people who see bullying happening around them? How can they help?
Lee Hirsch: What I’m hearing back is that they’re seeing their own agency. They’re seeing that the things that they may not have identified as bullying matter. They have the power to step in and find really creative ways to be upstanders. They're seeing that they themselves are the changemakers.
We actually have a cool initiative we launched with Ashoka asking youth to come up with responses to the film that create and foster empathy in their schools. This is where we’re most hopeful. We don’t force feed answers in the movie. I have a huge amount of faith and respect for youth. As creative as they are at bullying, I think they can be just as creative in finding solutions. That’s one of the best things that’s happening with the movie right now.
I know you recently resolved the ratings issue with the MPAA by making some slight modifications to language used in the film. Could you comment on that whole episode?
Lee Hirsch: We were given this rating that felt absolutely wrong. We decided to fight it, the kids in the film asked me to fight it. Alex Libby, now 15, went to the MPAA and argued really powerfully for why this rating was wrong and why kids needed to be able to see this and hear the language they hear every day of their lives. I felt that, in particular, there was one scene that I refused to cut because the language was so critical to conveying the experience of being bullied.
And then all this incredible activism happened that I had nothing to do with and couldn’t have dreamed up. Katy Butler and her strength and her courage and her petition on Change.org and the half a million people that ultimately signed on to that. The thing that I would say is they didn’t just sign the petition, they wrote their stories, they wrote letters, they shared it on their Facebook walls. They got the conversation going and they weren’t just talking about the MPAA, they were talking about why bullying is important and why stepping up is important.
How do you respond to the criticism the film simplifies the link between bullying and suicide?
Lee Hirsch: I don’t think that film simplifies the link between suicide and bullying. I think the film tells the story of five families and two of those families lost their children and those children were seriously bullied. We have 25 partner organizations and some of the smartest people in the world have vetted this film. I don’t think we do that.
We have to talk about bullying and suicide. There is headline after headline after headline. There is tragedy after tragedy. There’s always going to be people who disagree with you, but I believe that what we’re doing is making a difference and it’s a positive difference. That’s really what’s important here.
Right. The important thing is starting a conversation that gets at the complexities of the issue.
Lee Hirsch: And that’s why we have the resources and the viewing guide and the educators and the partnerships and all these organizations that work in the space are engaged and a part of this process because it’s an important conversation. What I'm hearing from hundreds of people now is that they’re seeing this film with their kids and their kids are talking about it with them for the first time in their lives. There are real positive outcomes now from this film and that’s where my focus is.
So what comes next? How can those moved by the film take action?
Lee Hirsch: We want them to engage on our website at bullyproject.com, which is getting better by the day. We have major youth initiatives under the students section of the website. We’re honing that more and more with our youth partners. We want them to step up, let us know how they’re doing it, be creative.
We also set a goal that we want a million kids to see this film. So we’re working on figuring out how to do that. We want to keep cooking!
For more information on bullying and bystanders, see these fact sheets:
What to do if you are being bullied
What to do if someone you know is being bullied
Bystanders role in cyberbullying
Have you seen the movie "Bully"? What did you think?