I’ve been meaning to watch “Bully” for awhile, especially as I’ve been involved with Junior High Noon (which addresses bullying, albeit in a different manner). The film looks at several young people who have experienced bullying in their lives – primarily because they are “different” from everyone else. One girl is ostracised because she is gay. Another is incarcerated, because she acted out violently against her tormentors. There’s a boy who we watch getting picked on – on a daily basis – during his school bus commute. And there are several parents who have lost their children to suicide.
From my description, it probably sounds very dire, but it isn’t always so. Some of the kids are very resilient, despite their fear and frustration. At times, they are very articulate for their age. In particular, the boy who is teased as “fish face”. Most of the time, he retreats into his inner world and doesn’t say much – even to his parents, who try to pry information out of him like they’re pulling teeth. However, when he is wandering about town and talking idly to camera, or playing with his siblings, he says some very insightful and intimate things.
The most compelling aspect of this movie is that it convinces you that bullying is a serious problem that has become endemic to the American school system. In terms of a solution, it doesn’t offer one. However, the problem persists, because nobody wants to recognise it. The school faculty members waver between indifference and exasperation. The police are reluctant to get involved. The parents of the offending children do not appear to take any interest in what’s going on – in fact, none of them appear in this documentary at all. In the end, it’s up to the community to police itself – and that is what some of the grieving parents do when they set up organisations to connect with other grieving parents and bullied children.
A lot of people shrug off bullying as if it’s part of growing up – “kids will be kids”. But they don’t realise the torment that comes from daily, psychological abuse. The kids in this documentary live in constant fear, which they react to very differently with various coping mechanisms.
It was shocking how insensitive the community was in these cases. Not only did the gay teenager watch her social situation deteriorate, but her family, too, lost all of their so-called ‘friends’ and became outsiders. It became obvious, then, that bullying wasn’t a personal problem, or a problem between a few ‘rowdy’ individuals, but a social problem caused by the breakdown of the community.
When I was working on JHN, I came to a similar conclusion. There was a scandinavian report of a school that had serious problems with bullying – including suicide – that tackled the issue by rallying the whole school community to intercede. In fact, the problem is that nobody on the sidelines intervenes. We are more concerned with teaching our children to stand up for themselves than we are in teaching them to stand up for one another. This is an important lesson, I believe, which is corroborated by this documentary. It’s the inadequate and ineffectual reaction of the community that propagates bullying. How many times have we heard of public abuse – like New York city subway mugging – that goes unchallenged by the other by-standers? People turn a blind eye, rather than get involved. This is a problem.
Stylistically, the film is shot very simply, which prevents it from getting in the way of the material. There were a few times, however, when the focus goes in and out all over the place – so much so that I figured this must have been an affectation, as opposed to bad focus pulling… but it’s hard to tell for certain. It was a bit distracting. Nevertheless, the protagonists of the piece are very engaging, so you get over it quickly.
If you are interested in learning more, there’s a website devoted to the film that has some interesting content.