Lee Hirsch‘s documentary about bullying made headlines long before its release, when it received an R certificate in America. This rating has since been overturned after protest (and the removal of expletives) by the Weinstein Company, who reasoned that the audience that needed to view the film, young adults, would be excluded from seeing it. This signposted that this is a film intent on becoming an issue film. That Bully has been made to effect change, is unfortunately what is most problematic about the end result. The heavy-handeded nature of Bully stops it being a discussion and instead makes it a lecture in misery.
During the film we follow five different American families who have been affected by bullying. Some families are bereaved, with the loss of one member to suicide due to bullying, other families have children trying to cope with bullying, with schools and teachers unable or uninterested in stopping the daily barrage. The heart-breaking stories are reasonably consistent: it isn’t the physical violence that is the worst, it is the continuous, unescapable mental torment that is the biggest problem. According to the film’s production notes “Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation.”, this documentary allows us to put faces to this statistic: 12-year-old Alex, who wants to fit in, but whose own parents describe as a little odd, 16-year-old Kelby, whose proud lesbian stance has isolated her at the small-town high school she attends.
The problem is the film is not very even-handed in its dissection of the issues. Whilst Alex’s school and particular teachers are followed, their appalling behaviour held up as examples of what is wrong with the schooling system, we have no idea what teachers had/have, or haven’t tried in the cases of the other children. Teachers are quite literally scapegoated in this film with absolutely no right of reply. They are surely part of the solution, so it seems short-sighted to cut them out of the narrative.
The other major problem with the documentary is the aesthetic. Whilst portion of the film are home-videos so understandably shaky and grainy, it is worrying that the professional cameramen, who have shot the interviews, are unable to hold the camera steady. Bully‘s completely unneccessary and unpleasant shaky cam is a very unfortunate visual style especially for example when a bereaved father is talking about his 11 year-old son’s funeral and the camera operator can’t even get the top half of the interviewee’s head in frame.
As a call to arms Bully works well at generating emotion, but as a documentary it lacks any true insight. Why do children who bully have a lack of empathy for their victims? How do teachers view this growing problem of bullying? What lengths are schools going to to try and solve the problem? What solutions have been tried and worked to curtail bullying? These were some of the questions Bully should have been looking to answer. While the intentions in making this film are no doubt noble and well-meaning, ultimately Bully is a very poor documentary. Its failure to approach its subject with any sense of curiosity, means that as an audience we come away no more enlightened than when we first walked into the cinema.
Bully is released in Australia on August 23rd
Director: Lee Hirsch