Lee Hirsch’s first documentary was AMANDLA!: A REVOLUTION IN FOUR-PART HARMONY, which chronicled the history of the South African anti-apartheid struggle through a celebration of its musical heroes. The film premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award, while also being in the running for the Grand Jury Prize. AMANDLA! was later nominated for five Emmys in 2004, winning for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research.
Over the next few years, Hirsch’s documentary filmmaking stayed in television, as he directed the short LAIDBACK KNOWLEDGE in 2004, ACT OF HONOR in 2007 and the series NEXTWORLD from 2008 to 2009. However, it was in 2009, when he heard the stories of two 11-year-old boys who committed suicide as a result of severe bullying. This news prompted Hirsch to follow through on making a film about bullying, a problem he dealt with as a child during middle school. Over the next year, Hirsch filmed the stories of those who had been the targets of bullies in their school systems and communities, and BULLY was the end result.
While the film’s message may have gotten in recent weeks in the shadow of BULLY’s ratings controversy with the MPAA, Hirsch’s doc is very timely considering the attention that’s been paid to the problem of bullying recently. It’s easy for some to proclaim it as “kids being kids,” but things have gotten more and more extreme with the advancement of technology (cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc). There is no longer an escape from bullying, and we’ve seen more drastic consequences – suicides and kids shooting up their school – because of that. Hirsch’s film seeks to open up the conversation about how do we stop this from happening and how do we bring awareness to what’s increasingly become a major problem for adolescents.
I had the chance to speak with Lee Hirsch about the film earlier this week. In addition to discussing the MPAA fight, we were able to get into some of the criticisms of the film as well as the problems of both parents and school administrators in dealing with bullying. There’s a lot to think about here. Enjoy…
Lee Hirsch: Hey.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd: Hey, Lee. It’s good to talk to you today.
Lee Hirsch: It’s good to talk to you. Thanks for talking to me.
The Kidd: Absolutely. Let’s start with the MPAA and your frustrations in dealing with them regarding the film’s rating. Can you detail your discussions with them and their resistance to hold firm on this strong rating that really comes down to the quantity of some choice words?
Lee Hirsch: Well are you aware that they’ve given us a PG-13?
The Kidd: Yes, but going in, before you had this unrated version, which is really where the fight ultimately came from.
Lee Hirsch: Yeah, yeah... no… Sure, well first of all I mean it’s kind of sweet that I’m talking to you, because I get to say “Ain’t It Cool that news that they did cave.” Look, they have their system. They gave us the rating. We appealed it. We thought that the rating was totally unjustified given the many films that they had overturned and given a PG-13 given the double standard around violence in films that are consistently rated PG and PG-13. I drew my line in the sand around this one scene. They weren’t willing to budge. Massive incredible organic resistance rose up nationwide. We saw Katy Butler’s incredible petition that knocked me off my socks. It rose and rose and just kept gaining fire and traction. We went to D.C. We met with Chris Dodd and some of the executives and legal folks at the MPAA and I really felt like they didn’t like the rating either and they were trying to figure out what they could do and not sort of break their system and I said, “Look, systems change. Institutions change and there’s no reason why you guys can’t.” And we just kept holding strong and as you know we released the film unrated. I had great support from Harvey Weinstein, our wonderful distributor, and they called and we reached a settlement. I think the pressure, the public pressure, played a huge role.
The Kidd: Are you against making the cuts that you had to make to get the PG13? I think you went from six “fucks” to three now in the overall version and in a perfect world would you have preferred to leave the film intact?
Lee Hirsch: Of course. Of course I wanted to leave the film intact, but at the end of the day it’s unreasonable. To me, it felt like I had to really hold firm to this one particular scene which conveyed… If someone says “What the fuck?!” in the background it’s very different than when someone is going “I will fucking end you” and they are in the ear of the central subject of the film, Alex Libby. So to me it was about being reasonable, taking a position, and holding strong to that and not being so intractable as to give them no options. Ultimately what I’m interested in is the fact that there’s been a deep conversation of the MPAA and that they were flexible in the end. It took a hell of a lot of pressure, but I think they made the right call and I think that Chris Dodd and people within the organization fought hard for that to happen.
The Kidd: How did you come to pick these particular five stories to tell in BULLY? Furthermore, were there other stories that you did follow that maybe didn’t make the cut? Or did you say, “No, these are the five that we are going to hold firm on?”
Lee Hirsch: No, there were many stories that I followed that didn’t make the cut. I spent a lot of time… If you go back and look at our original trailer, it’s pretty widely online, you’ll see there was a kid we talked about his experience of being bullied. We spent a lot of time filming in his community with two families that were going through extreme bullying with a very resistance school. I filmed with three other families that lost children that year, many many other kids and families. You know, I shot for like 180 something days. It was just nonstop and ultimately these are the five families that we chose in the editing process that worked the best. Not that any of their stories were least compelling, but really Alex was the breakthrough and being given access into the school system and being able to be inside and have that fly on the wall verite ability to see his story unfold was really the breakthrough for us, for me as a director.
The Kidd: The one thing that kind of struck me, which I guess is just a little bit of a criticism of the film was that everything seemed to either take place in the south or in the Midwest portion of the country as opposed to some city or urban areas. That’s why I wanted to know…
Lee Hirsch: Sure and people have said that.
The Kidd: I think it plays into a little bit of some stereotypes of like “Go figure... We would expect that” from some people, so that’s why I was curious if there were other stories that were told in some big cities or urban areas.
Lee Hirsch: There was. We shot a family, a very wealthy family, in Minneapolis. It was a very urban story. It’s not in the film. We talked to families in L.A. and New York City. These were the stories… You know I gave myself one year and the access in Sioux City was the pivotal grounding for this movie and the stories that you see are the stories that we were able to tell and I wasn’t making a political statement by choosing. Sioux City is not a small city, it’s 100,000 people. It’s an adverse city, so to me it wasn’t about making a conscious choice to be in those communities. I mean I was quoted somewhere… I just read somewhere that quoted me as saying that I liked the “Americana” of it. They put me out of context. I think this film has a universal story and I actually like that… I’ve been in screenings where someone said, “Well clearly this is a red state rural problem” and everyone in the room said “Are you crazy? We have this right here.” Our audiences are smart, viewers can relate to this film, and I don’t think that we’ve done a disservice to the plight of urban kids. I think that this a film for everybody. We’re a big country from New York to L.A.
The Kidd: I agree and that’s why I wanted to give you a chance to speak on that, because bullying is not something that just happens in one place or another, it kind of happens everywhere and that’s just one of the things that kind of struck me about the film. That’s why I just wanted to give you a chance to answer about that.
Lee Hirsch: Sure.
The Kidd: One of the other things I was kind of amazed at though was the behavior of some of the kids who even knowing that the cameras are present there are still continuing on with this behavior. Were you kind of surprised by the lack of restraint that was shown by some of the people depicted in the film?
Lee Hirsch: At that point I wasn’t, because they were so used to be and just that life had gone on and we had really become like wallpaper at that point. You know, we’re not talking like film production like you might imagine it, we are talking about this is me with a small tiny hand held what looks like a still camera, so had we had lights and crew and gear and rigged the bus and all of that stuff, yeah then I might be surprised, but under the way it sort of played out I wasn’t and also like those kids were really used to bullying Alex and adults had been around before and it didn’t stop them, so I just think all of those things were kind of happening in that moment.
The Kidd: In the case of Alex you actually stepped in to show the footage to the school system and to his family as far as what was being done to him, which is really a big line to cross for a documentarian to kind of get involved in the story, so was that a tough decision for you to make in the process? To kind of speak up for this kid and make the film a secondary priority at that point?
Lee Hirsch: It was not a tough decision, it was the only decision. It was the right the thing to do and it’s exactly what we felt we had to do and it didn’t matter at that point what would happen to our access in the school or to the process.
The Kidd: There’s this constant denial that a problem ever exists that seems to go on by school administrators and I don’t know whether they just want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that it just goes away or there’s this failure to realize how bad it was, but over the course of your year did you kind of come to the conclusion that maybe they are really kind of clueless as to what’s going on? Or is it that their hands are tied as far as what they can do?
Lee Hirsch: I think it’s everything you said and nothing you said, I mean I think that there’s a great opportunity to have a national conversation in the education state. I’m actually speaking to you while standing front of the entrance to the NEA in D.C. where we are about to screen for 400 plus critical decision makers from across every agency that deals with this issue. This is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to have these conversations. We wanted to partner with these organizations. Yes, teachers, administrators, educators need more support. They need more professional development. They need more resources and in some cases some of them need the boot, need to not be running schools if they are unwilling to take a stand on bullying.
[The two are told they are out of time and that Hirsch needs to wrap it up.]
The Kidd: Do you have time for one more question or rather I just email it?
Lee Hirsch: No, I’d rather just do it. (Laughs)
The Kidd: Okay, yeah just one more question to kind of follow up on that. On the other side of things, what struck me a little bit was almost like this naïve approach to kind of combat this with rallies or I’ve heard of some workshops that are being done where still the language is being softened like they don’t even want to cal lit “bullying” anymore. They are trying to call it like “targeting” or what not. Do you think that the answer to this is to really take the fight though to people that have the power to make these changes in policy or make these changes in punishment?
Lee Hirsch: You didn’t make your last question easy. (Laughs) Here, I know where you’re going and I think that there’s work for everybody at every level. I think everything plays a role. I mean when you see students organizing and doing a flash mob against bullying that’s powerful, that’s awesome. People need to be free and inspired to come up with creative solutions and whether that’s assemblies, whether that’s rallies, whether that’s flash mobs, whether that’s pop songs, whether that’s films. I’m seeing lots of creative output from youth towards this end. I’m a fan for all of that. I think at the same time I’m also in a conversation about “How do we create long term change?” “What are the programs?” “What are the support structures?” “What does it mean to have a school that publicly forwardly reflects the climate and the school, so that that matters on par with math and science scores and academic achievement?” Those are the conversations that I’m interested in. I’m interested in fostering schools that say “We want to embrace long term change” and that’s where our funders, our partners, we are all knee deep in those conversations and facilitating that transformation. So I think all together you have a movement and everything is valid.
The Kidd: The film is incredibly impactful. As a parent it really struck me, being worrisome as far as what my kid might endure one day. Congrats on the film and I hope it really does well.
Lee Hirsch: Thanks, brother. I appreciate it.
The Kidd: All right, thank you very much.
Lee Hirsch: Okay, bye.
The Kidd: Bye.
BULLY is open in limited release right now in New York and Los Angeles. The film opens wide this Friday, April 13.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
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