With the rare exception, everyone has been on the receiving-end of bullying in some form at one time or another. ‘Bully’, a confronting documentary by filmmaker Lee Hirsch, smartly contends that this isn’t simply a natural part of growing up but an ugly social phenomenon that has been swept under carpets and into the shadows by a negligent school system.
To prove his point, Hirsch follows the lives of several small-town Central American families as they deal with the ongoing cycle of emotional abuse and its repercussions at the hands of grade-school youths. Hirsch opens with a recounting of the death of Tyler Long and, eventually, Ty Smalley – both kids victims of bullying – before joining up with several other kids affected by bullying. These kids run the gamut of social isolation, sexual victimization and racial prejudice, making for an interesting cultural cross-section.
Bully is, in many ways, stylistically typical of most banner-waving documentaries. It has an agenda: expose the realities of being bullied through use of well-researched archival footage, carefully edited to poignant music and coupled with moving testimonials. Like other commercially viable documentaries, it also feels like a bit of a construction. At times, it’s hard to define where the lines of honesty lie and where the artistry of the filmmaker takes over.
Don’t get me wrong – Bully is an important film that raises valid points (Bullying is preventable, death is never the solution, schools need to be proactive and parents should listen to their kids), but at times I felt a little manipulated by the particulars of the edits and the situations that I feel Hirsch himself constructed. This becomes most apparent while Hirsch follows the days of young central case study, Alex (born very prematurely, Alex physically developed a little differently and has since become introverted and socially outcast).
Hirsch spends a couple of sequences with Alex playing down on the train tracks as large freight trains rumble past. After talking about the tragic suicides of several bullied kids, Hirsch is basically waving a big flag, saying ‘look how easy it would be for Alex to run in front of one of these things’. It’s a contextual metaphor that felt very manipulative.
There are a lot of moments like these where context is everything. Schools and parents are painted as hamstrung and unable to cope; bullies are sociopaths and the victims of bullying are excused from their own behavioural shortcomings because of circumstance. That last point is never more apparent than when young girl Ja’Maya takes a gun to school and brandishes it on a bus in an act of desperation. We see the polarizing political outcome: Ja’Maya is incarcerated and her home life thrown into flux – but Bully mostly paints her as a helpless victim here. If anything, there are two large (and timely) points that aren’t directly raised in Bully that Ja’Maya herself becomes an inadvertent poster-child for: America’s need for greater gun control and subsidized mental health services.
Hirsh’s narrative approach is well constructed; he uses the right cuts of dialogue and vision to get his points across convincingly. Tight focus paints his subjects in soft light; extreme close-ups on eyes, faces, mouths and hands wrought with inner tension – all of it beautiful in execution and tragic in impact.
Is it fair to criticize a documentary for being too persuasive when the subject matter is not only genuinely tragic – and tragically widespread – but also so rarely brought into the public domain? That’s the question I struggle with. Then again, if a film like this is so worthwhile, why isn’t it available for free online? Why isn’t it being supported at a governmental level and issued to classrooms worldwide, to be viewed under supervision from parents and teachers? Commerciality is a hard thing to excuse away in a film of this nature.
Whether or not this serves as a true documentary or more of a public service message is up to you, but there’s no denying at heart (and this is a film about matters of heart after all), Bully is well intentioned and aiming for a greater good.