Lee Hirsch's new documentary, The Bully Project is taking the Tribeca Film Festival by storm. Its world premiere saw the Weinstein Company pick it up for distribution and it's the favourite to take out the festival's audience award in addition to other prizes.
It's no wonder. The Bully Project documents the issue of bullying amongst America's teens and its tragic consequences: a systemic problem that affects an estimated 18 million children in the US alone. The documentary centres on five of these children and their families: Alex, 14, from Sioux City, Iowa; Kelby, 16, from Tuttle, Oklahoma; Ja'Meya, 14, from Yazoo County, Mississippi; the Longs, from Chattsworth, Georgia; and the Smalleys, from Perkins, Oklahoma. A deeply moving, heartbreaking and entirely mesmerising portrait, The Bully Project follows these children and their families over the course of a school year. Hirsch admitted at its festival screening that the film largely “made itself” due to the “the urgency of the story and the issues”.
At the film's premiere, Alex and his family were in attendance and the reception they received was nothing short of deafening. It was from an audience that had spent the past 90-plus minutes watching, in disbelief, the torment Alex endured day after day as he travelled from his home, in the school bus and on school grounds. An audience which heard that he was beginning to “feel nothing” when classmates jabbed him with pencils, punched and attacked him, while the school administration failed to offer adequate protection. The later is an element of the documentary that particularly riled many in the audience. Hirsch freely admits that the administrators who appear in the film infuriated him. At the same time, he wanted to temper reactions, saying, “The school district was brave and awesome to let us film the movie there, and stand by the movie, even though they don't look great, because they want the message to get out there.”.
The documentary does not shy away from the harsh and brutal realities of bullying. Footage in the film is raw and deeply emotional. It was footage that was also confrontational for the parents of the perpetrators. They had to sign documentary release forms for their children's appearance — kids that were most often seen in a negative light. Says producer Cynthia Lowen, “As you might expect, we had a lot of hard conversations with parents. When we told them that their child is in a film about bullying and they are doing the bullying they were, by and large, extraordinarily upset and disappointed. They wanted their kids to be in the film because they wanted them to take responsibility for what they had done. It was surprising. We expected a lot of doors to be slammed in our face.”
On his experience of being in the documentary, Alex said, “At first I felt nervous, but then I got used to it. Being here [now] makes me happy”. He says that he is not bullied anymore.
The Bully Project is an interventionist documentary that joins in solidarity with the victims and their families. It heralds the start of a movement that includes reaching out to millions of teens across the United States. See www.thebullyproject.com.