Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2011)
[NOTE: this entire review can be construed to contain spoilers, if that word has any meaning when one is discussing a documentary. Proceed with caution.]
I don’t quite know how to review Bully. My proposed method of dealing with many of this film’s subjects could possibly, if I aired it here, be considered advocating violence. (And it is.) That’s not something you’re supposed to do these days. After all, consider the fate of Ja’Meya Jackson, one of the five teens in this movie who fall into the category of what Jean Shepherd called “the nameless rabble of victims”. She was bullied, she decided to do something about it, and not only did she get arrested and sent for psychiatric evaluation, but director Lee Hirsch leveraged the incident to include one of the movie’s most startling, offensive interviews, in which an adult who obviously has no memory of his own school days says he cannot imagine there being justification for Jackson’s actions unless the other kids were “beating her in the head every day.” How much do you want to bet this idiot was a bully himself, back in the day? And in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you this: I was in high school quite a while ago (I graduated in 1986), when things were a little more relaxed than they are now vis-a-vis what you could and could not have with you in school. You know that scene in one of S. E. Hinton’s novels where the main character mentions the scalpel he was using in science class was too dull, so he pulled out a switchblade to open up a worm, and the reaction of the kids around him was not “OH SHIT THIS KID HAS A SWITCHBLADE!!!” but “wow, you really are a hoodlum”? Things weren’t that relaxed by the early eighties—I would have been sent to detention had I been found out—but I too was one of that nameless rabble of victims, and for three of my high school years I carried either a stiletto or a butterfly knife with me every. single. day. Why? Because I had a knife pulled on me by a bully in eighth grade, and I was lucky to get away with the small amount of blood he drew. This is not a new problem, and all that we’ve managed to do in the intervening quarter century is make bullying easier and more pervasive by taking away every tool the victims have to defend themselves. Someone turning a camera on this problem was long overdue. Lee Hirsch finally did it, and what I saw didn’t change my views on how to deal with bullies one iota, save to reaffirm them something fierce.
The main problem with Bully—and I use the term “problem” perhaps in a nitpicky sense, though seeing how things would have gone had Hirsch taken this approach would have been interesting indeed—is that Lee Hirsch is not Frederick Wiseman. In Wiseman’s classic muckraker Titicut Follies, Wiseman got the shocking footage he did because he and his crew stayed at the facility for so long that they eventually, to the guards, became as visible as potted plants, and this allowed Wiseman to capture things on tape that no thinking human being would ever consider doing in the light, much less on film. Hirsch and his crew never achieved that level of invisibility, and if I had to put money on it, I’d wager a year’s pay that the actual bullying that got caught on tape is only the slightest tip of the iceberg. We hear much more about the bullying that goes on in high schools than we actually see, and as we all know, you can tell people things until they’re blue in the face and the majority of them will simply not listen. If you really want someone to understand the depth of the problem, you have to show them that it exists. Hirsch does not do this, and to me, the movie suffers for it.
This is not to say that what we get is not valuable, and the Ja’Meya Jackson story (and resultant school-official interview) I referenced above is worth the price of admission by itself, in that regard; I haven’t checked, but I can’t imagine that genius still has a job. If he does, that condemns the entire school board that employed him. Everything else to be found here is just bloody icing on a black-and-blue cake, and there’s a whole lot of it. The evidence that this problem is much, much worse than you thought it was is sitting right in front of you. Maybe it’s time to start listening. And for the love of god, people, when the bullied stand up for themselves and bullies end up in the hospital—or underground—don’t punish them for it. Give them medals. ****