Bully: A New Documentary To Empower the Underdog

How a documentary is urging individuals to stand up to crush bullying once and for all.

Kids from my 6th grade class at Collier Street Elementary will remember the funny catch phrase: “Harold did it! Harold did it!” Naturally, the attribute was linked to anything utterly humiliating that occurred on a given day.

Harold Levinson was new, slow, fat and his name was Harold. He made an ideal Piggy for the brazen ringleaders – angry boys undoubtedly getting whipped by post-military fathers at home – and the followers, who despite their own bevy of self doubts, could not resist belonging to something. No one shoved Harold’s head in a locker or stole his lunch money, the typical fodder witnessed in My Bodyguard in 1980. Ours was the more subliminal form of torment in which a a misfit was poked and taunted and convinced he was worthless at a time when his vulnerability was at its peak.

Worse case scenario: the brutality ends in suicide as witnessed in the powerful film, Bully which profiles a handful of boys and one lesbian girl victimized by other students at various public schools in the nation. In the case of the gay teen in bible belt Oklahoma, the fear-based teachers are no better than the thugs; and in just about all of the other cases, parents as well as administrators prove clueless at taking effective action.

14 year-old Alex Hopkins, featured in Bully

Alex Hopkins is among those submitting. A gentle, 14-year-old middle school student, Hopkins is targeted on the dreaded yellow bus in his Sioux City, Iowa district. Branded fish face because of his flattened nose and puffy lips, the meek and seemingly kind boy is attacked daily by an older boy while egged on by other riders.

“Do it!” another geek encourages, while poor Alex is getting slugged in the back for no other reason than he is occupying the edge of a vinyl seat. The viewer becomes increasingly aggravated as no ally steps in to help.

A maddening confrontation occurs when Alex’s parents meet with the school. Despite the fact we have all witnessed the disturbing footage, the principal denies the bus poses a danger. “I’ve ridden that bus and those kids are as good as gold,” she assures them.

Producer Cynthia Lowen says to EcoSalon, “It’s not that the administrators in the film are not good people or are not trying, but many of the administrators in our country simply have not been equipped with the tools to effectively address bullying,”

While the lack of tools is frustrating, Emmy Award-winning director, Lee Hirsch – who, like Harold Levinson was a bullied Jewish school boy –  says blaming schools and policy makers won’t solve the problem of 5.7 million students bullied each year in the U.S. school system. Instead, Levinson looks to individuals to battle the bully epidemic.

“In the film, we’ve certainly shied away from any kind of legislative agenda,” he tells The Atlantic. “Rather, I think the focus, at least for us, especially because we’re not experts, is to hopefully allow people to feel like they can make a difference. Particularly young viewers – that they can stand up, they can put a stop to it, they can step in on someone’s behalf and that’s empowering, that’s possible and that really will cause change.”

His film’s slogan that “change starts with one” has sparked the movement Hirsch envisioned. He launched the Bully Project Social Action Campaign which partners with every mover and shaker central to the bully-victim dynamic. Its primary initiative is getting one million kids into theaters in 55 cities and towns in the U.S. and Canada to view and discuss the the film with a trained facilitator for an immersive experience.

Kelby, a 16 year old bullied lesbian featured in the documentary

“Facilitators use a 50-page guide of questions prepared by Facing History and Ourselves which allows a wrap-around discussion experience for the kids,” explains Margo Reid, head of Partners Relations with the campaign. “It’ s not simply about addressing the symptoms of bullying but also getting to the root issue – which is social and emotional learning in schools and in the community.”

Reid says 100,000 kids have viewed it or are scheduled to view it in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the campaign is reaching out to public schools to do their part. Seeding a special program with $450,000, the goal is to further an online platform for teachers to raise private money to continue to train parents, educators and students on how to make a difference in the response to bullying.

“The parents of the kids who are doing the bullying allowed their kids to be in this film, which was an incredibly courageous act, with the belief that they could learn from seeing their behaviors projected this way and change,” argues Lowen. “I think we all know that kids who bully have a huge potential for change, but it is up to adults to create environments in which bullying behavior is not tolerated, and where adults model positive behaviors and support all kids in the community.”

But support comes with communication and this is often lacking, another factor which complicates the issue. Sometimes victims don’t tell their parents or insist on staying at a school no matter what; sometimes parents blame the victims, as in the case of Alex’s dad who warned his sheepish son to “stop it now or else your sister will also get it.”

Another girl in the film, a battered honors student, tried to stop it by resorting to threatening kids on the bus with a gun from home. A judge gave her a lucky break from a prison sentence but it becomes clear, these kids can’t be expected to solve these horrors on their own. While the problem is complicated, the film shows us the answers are pretty simple. When it comes to negotiating the often ruthless and backwards world of modern education, anyone tolerating violence is as guilty as the aggressors.

“Every single person can walk away from this film with the motivation to make a change in their own behavior, and to step in when they witness bullying, whether that means as a young person sitting with someone who is routinely ostracized at lunch, or as a teacher standing in the halls before classes, or for administrators to take the time to really investigate bully situations, or as parents, to have meaningful conversations with their kids about bullying,” insists Lowen.

To watch the trailer for the movie go here.

Images: The Bully Project

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.