The docu BULLY, which, unfortunately, was slapped with R Rating by the MPAA, will be released by the Weinstein Company March 30, 2012,
Q. What was the impetus behind Bully?
LH: Bully is a deeply personal film for me: I was bullied throughout middle school and much of my childhood. In many ways, those experiences and struggles helped shape my worldview and my direction as a filmmaker. Bullying was a subject I wanted very much to explore in a film, and it was always on the list of projects I wanted to develop. But it stayed an abstraction for a long time — I was too scared to start developing the idea in earnest because it would mean confronting my own demons, and revisiting a painful period of my life.
By the early spring of 2009, a documentary about bullying had moved to the forefront of my mind. Then, in April of 2009, came news about two 11-year-old boys — Carl Joseph Walker Hoover of Massachusetts, and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia – who took their own lives. Both deaths were linked to trauma from chronic bullying. In the wake of those tragedies, I turned my full focus to making this film. I partnered with producer Cynthia Lowen, and we began research and fundraising.
Q. The research you did for the film?
LH: Not surprisingly, the Internet was a major source of information and contacts. All over the Internet — in chat rooms, on websites, on YouTube – kids and families were desperate to find a way to voice their experiences of bullying, harassment and loss. Most of these families shared several things in common: they had been coping with the bullying for years; they had received no support from their school administrators after numerous complaints; and they felt they had nowhere to turn. There were thousands of these postings, filled with frustration and anger. People needed to tell their stories from the frontlines, and that defined our approach to Bully.
We also did extensive academic research for this film, which included working with a number of nationally recognized experts in the field of bullying prevention. We attempted to translate a number of daunting statistics and studies into real-life experiences and potential stories. Through each of the five different stories in the film, we were able to explore different facets of bullying, and to show how universal a problem it is, crossing boundaries of race, class and geography. From that perspective, the figure of 13 million represents youth from every single community in the United States.
Q. The central character is Alex, a 12-year-old in his first year of middle school.
Our primary goal, which was also our primary challenge, was to actually capture bullying on camera. Cynthia and I knew the only way to do this was to embed ourselves at a school, preferably for the length of the academic year
In the spring of 2009, while doing research for preproduction, we came across the Workplace Bullying Institute, run by Gary and Ruth Namie. They had recently published the first study on the incidence of workplace bullying, which was funded by the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, based in Sioux City, Iowa. Gary Namie introduced us to Cindy Waitt, the executive director of WIVP, who became an executive producer of BULLY.
WIVP is very active in the Sioux City School District’s violence prevention work, and Cindy introduced us to the Sioux City Superintendent, Dr. Paul Gausman. In July of 2009, we presented our idea for the film to the Sioux City Community School Board, requesting permission to film throughout the district for the 2009/2010 school year. The Board felt it was an important project, and they agreed to be partners in the process. This was a huge leap of faith, and represented a brave commitment to their ongoing bullying prevention programs. The Board was willing to take a tough look at their own community through the camera’s lens. They wanted to see where efforts were succeeding, and where there was still work to be done.
We decided to spend a year as “flies on the wall” inside East Middle School, in Sioux City.
We met Alex before the first day of school. He was just beginning 7th grade, and had been chronically bullied since grade school. In following Alex over the course of the year, during which he was severely bullied, we were able to see not only the huge toll bullying takes on the kids who are bullied, but also on their families. And we witnessed how administrators and schools are profoundly challenged in successfully dealing with bullying.
Q. How did the students at East Middle School react to your presence?
Initially we were something of a spectacle, but that quickly faded away to the daily drama of a middle school environment.
Q. Bully documents Alex being bullied on the school bus.
Kids had been bullying Alex for so long, with such impunity, that they had no fear of consequences. So while the bullying on camera was initially surprising, the reasons for it soon made sense. We were also shooting on the Canon 5d Mark II, which looked like a still photographic camera to the kids, so a lot of them were not necessarily aware that we were actually shooting video. Because we spent so much time in the school, we eventually became like the wallpaper and were able to witness what a very typical day looked like. That said, we believe that the bullying was also much worse when the camera was not present.
One thing that we were very careful about, however, was to protect Alex from any negative attention or increased bullying by virtue of us following him over the year. We filmed with lots of kids, in lots of classes, and at lots of different kinds of school events, so it wasn’t apparent that we were focusing on Alex.
Q. How did you find the other families
We started the process by reaching out to kids and families across the U.S. We spoke at length on the phone and in person about their experiences and struggles. Many of these families we met through postings on online message boards, Oprah.com, “The Ellen Show,” Facebook and YouTube. We got early support from the producers of “The Ellen Show,” who did a show about Carl Walker Hoover, who was relentlessly bullied, called gay and told he acted like a girl. They agreed to pass along a message from our team to a number of families that had written in looking for help. That led us to Kelby in Tuttle, Oklahoma.
We met some families through reading about their struggles in the news. A young man in Georgia made headlines when he tackled a 14-year-old girl who had taken out a handgun on a school bus. We were curious: what could have prompted this young woman to bring a gun on her bus in the first place? We suspected it might have been bullying, and that turned out to be the case. That’s how Ja’Meya became a subject in the film.
Newspaper reporting also led us to the Longs in Georgia, and the Smalleys in Oklahoma, both of whom lost their children to suicide.