Lee Hirsch will never forget the brutality of his middle-school years, when he was the victim of what, in recent years, has become a tragic epidemic – bullying. The punches, taunts and name-calling were all wielded his way. And the bullshit justification for all the above: that it’s just part of being a kid.
But, as Hirsch’s controversial documentary Bully argues, it shouldn’t be.
“The driving force behind the film was to give a voice to that experience for myself and for others,” says the Long Island-raised writer/director, who sensitively spotlights the national issue in the film. “I made it for all of us ex-bullied and once-bullied – the coalition.”
And he did it by putting a face on the ever-growing problem. Five faces, in fact. Harrowing and heartbreaking, the doc follows the teens – one of which is then-16-year-old lesbian Kelby Johnson, living in Tuttle, Okla. – as they’re victimized within their own schools, often brushing it off as just a part of growing up.
“I was looking for a way to change something,” Kelby says, “and Lee gave me that opportunity, and I was excited to take that and run with it.”
To many gay teens, Kelby’s story of being ostracized is devastatingly familiar: She’s the reject of her small-town community, which doesn’t accept that she’s a lesbian – or that she has a girlfriend. Tuttle turns against not only Kelby but also her family.
“Kelby and I didn’t bond over a conversation about sexuality,” says Hirsch, who didn’t want to discuss his own orientation with us. “We bonded over the experience of being bullied, and that was really the same as it was with all the kids. I feel like our relationship began with a real conversation about what I experienced, what I wanted to set out to achieve with this film, why her story mattered and why what was happening wasn’t OK.”
They met via The Ellen DeGeneres Show, after Kelby’s mom, desperate to help her daughter, reached out to the outspoken talk-show host through a message board because she was afraid her daughter would succumb to the same fate of the many gay teens who’ve killed themselves in the last few years. Kelby not only didn’t, but she’s now helping others get through those hard years.
“I know that being gay, you can feel very alone,” she says, “and I hope that when they watch the movie, that goes away and they realize there is someone standing with them who has gone through that. The world is going to change and people are going to get more accustomed to [LGBT people], and they should be here to see it.”
Hirsch began filming in 2009, before the rush of LGBT-related suicides was met with national attention: Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge; 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who hanged himself; and Asher Brown, who shot himself after being bullied for coming out.
“They didn’t inspire the film, but it informed the early stages,” Hirsch says of the suicides. “You’re just overwhelmed by how much tragedy there is. The suicides were deeply moving, and people were writing in response to them – and it seemed that people everywhere were really struggling with this issue.”
Youth selected for the film were all, coincidentally, from rural communities and not vast urban cities. “It wasn’t intentional. It was the way it fell together, and the stories we found were most compelling there. A lot of it had to do with getting that access in Sioux City (the home of then-12-year-old lead Alex Libby) which kind of landed us in the Midwest to begin with.”
Some footage was filmed in New York and Minneapolis, but none as powerful as what made the final cut, Hirsch says. “There was something about the landscape of small-town America, the quiet and incredible heroism of the families, that I was really drawn to. There are so few outlets there; in big cities, there’s more for kids who don’t fit in or are different, so I think bullying in a small town can be more acute. It can be a harder world.”
Once he had his subjects, shooting was another challenge. Kelby’s school, unlike that of Alex, denied them access to film inside the premises. And the scenes involving bird’s-eye-views of bus rides and principal office sit-downs were “incredibly difficult” to capture.
One scene, on the bus, involves coarse language that the MPAA deemed too obscene for anything less than a hard R rating. Disappointed that the film’s message wouldn’t reach those it intended to, the studio fought the decision – with Michigan teen Katy Butler leading a movement that rallied nearly a half-million supporters, including – no kidding – Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Just days before its release date, Weinstein Co. decided to go the unrated route, snubbing the MPAA and leaving the decision to screen the film up to individual theaters. But then, on April 5, the MPAA and Weinstein Co. came to an agreement: after making profanity edits, the film received a PG-13 rating.
“We were just shocked,” Hirsch says of the MPAA’s initial decision. “I guess I wasn’t as shocked at the initial R, because technically we knew that might happen, but the appeal was really devastating because we had such a strong, compelling argument and other films had been overturned and had much worse profanity. We really thought they’d understand and recognize the value and the merit and the hope that this film offers to so many.”
One of them being Kelby, who’s now 19, just got her GED and is living in Oklahoma City – somewhat less close-minded, she mentions – with her girlfriend. Her plan now involves becoming a gay activist and working with LGBT groups, like Do Something, to continue blasting the bullying issue.
“There’s always going to be something, but (the bullying) has calmed down a little bit for me after the film,” she says, “and there are a lot of things I can brush off now. The film has helped me grow stronger and be more aware of others around me. It’s definitely been a positive experience, and I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.”
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com