Date posted: July 6, 2011
The Bully Project is a feature-length documentary film that covers a year in the lives of five families affected by bullying and traces the impact that has on their lives. Two families struggle with the suicide of a son and how to turn that tragic loss into something positive for others. Two other families try to deal with the ongoing and relentless bullying of a child. A fifth family must grapple with the incarceration of a child who, desperate to stop kids from bullying her, brought a gun onto the school bus.
When the film opened with David Long mourning the loss of his son, Tyler, who hung himself to escape bullying, I was prepared not to like the documentary, assuming it would dwell on the tragedy and inadvertently encourage other kids to consider killing themselves by presenting suicide as a viable or the only option to escape being bullied.
While a number of films and TV shows about bullying have focused on the sensational, and relatively rare, child who is driven to suicide by bullying, few have taken a more comprehensive view of the issue or shown kids and families who are managing to deal with bullying in positive and productive ways. For this, the filmmaker should be commended.
Kelby, a gay teen in Oklahoma, is bullied by kids and adults. She is supported by family and a small group of friends and is a surprisingly articulate, thoughtful, and inspiring figure. However, the bullying is so intense that the family thinks it has no choice but to move to a new town. Still, one is left with the impression that Kelby will not just survive but, in the end, triumph.
Alex, 14 in Sioux City, IA, has been bullied his entire life. We see him punched, jabbed, and threatened on the school bus, playground and in the neighborhood. We also see almost unbelievably bad responses by school administrators—at several points the audience was loudly booing an assistant principal.
Here film points to the sometimes unintentional damage that school officials and other adult authority figures can cause by their own actions, or lack thereof, in dealing with bullying.
Hirsch was given virtually free access to film in Sioux City schools. Although it is not noted in the film, in the discussion that followed the screening Hirsch said that the district realized it had a problem with bullying, but was also at a loss for a solution. School officials had not been trained in bullying prevention or intervention and hoped the film could shed some light on where problems existed and point towards possible action the district could take. After seeing the final cut, the district and the educators who appeared on film were shocked at what they saw themselves doing. They didn’t realize how their words and deeds would appear to others. Apparently, the school system is now aggressively moving to train faculty and staff.
In the cases of Tyler Long and Ty Field-Smalley, both of whom killed themselves, the filmmaker’s focus is less on the death of a child (though the emotional impact on the families is clearly shown) and more on what the families have done since. Both the Smalleys and the Longs are ordinary families yet both have taken their grief and channeled it into movements to eliminate or at least reduce bullying. The film documents the Long’s battles with the school system, law enforcement, and local officials, all of which would rather deny that there is a problem than confront it. They claim that bullying is not their problem, that it’s kids being kids, that they don’t have the authority to do anything.
Many anti bullying programs tell kids to tell an adult, yet research by Stan Davis, among others, shows that adults often make matters worse, not intentionally, but because they’re not trained in effective bullying prevention or intervention. In the post screening discussion, Tina, Tyler Long’s mom, said that, frustrated by inaction by the school and by local law enforcement, she went to the police station and swore out a warrant against other children who had been tormenting her son. She said she was trying to do something to stop the bullying, but what she did made things worse.
The Bully Project is not a comprehensive look at the issue, nor does it pretend to be. It humanizes the devastating impact of bullying through the stories of the five families. More than anything else, it shines a more nuanced light onto this important issue, stimulating awareness and provoking conversation. It doesn’t sensationalize the issue, and the actions of the families, particularly the kids, give us hope.
The Bully Project hits theaters this November and there are plans for screenings, social media, and educational materials to accompany it as well as a strategy to create a movement “of students, parents, school staff, policy makers and engaged citizens to create a positive environment in schools where everyone feels safe and respected.” The limited but well-chosen resources on The Bully Project’s website include advice from Rosalind Weissman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes), National PTA, and the US government’s Stop Bullying portal.
If this film is to be used to raise awareness and stimulate discussion in communities, it has a few weaknesses that I hope are addressed in the accompanying materials under development. I would like to have seen more in the film about what are best practices and what do effective interventions look like but, since none of the school systems had any, it would be hard to show in this documentary. I would also like to have seen more about the initiatives launched by the families and to learn what they have accomplished. Has anything changed in their communities as a result? Tyler Long’s sister, at the screening, said that bullying was still a problem at her school. Although the work of the families is inspiring, nobody really has an effective answer in the film, so we’re left wondering if there is anything that can realistically be done to stop bullying. And maybe that makes a good starting point for a community conversation.