MOST of us have fond memories of being young. Sometimes all it takes is a faint smell, a sound, or a fleeting sensation to bring the halcyon days of childhood rushing back. With an involuntary smile and satisfied sigh, we slip back to a simpler time of limitless possibility, freedom from responsibility and exhilarating adventure.
But sometimes, being a kid can be hell.
As documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch discovered, the travails of a tormented child can be an examination far more terrifying than anything faced in the workaday life of an adult.
“A group of five or six guys pulled me into a bathroom, where they had run the showers and hot water to make it steam up,” Hirsch recalls.
“They were acting out like they were taking me to a gas chamber and beat me up in there. It was absolutely terrifying.”
Hirsch had blocked out the incident, which took place at his high school in Long Island, until someone posted about it on his Facebook page. He was 15 at the time.
Twenty-five years later and Hirsch is a celebrated filmmaker, but the title he is most proud of is champion of the downtrodden.
His documentary Bully, which follows five children from America who are persecuted relentlessly at school, has become a global phenomenon and has put the topic of bullying firmly back on the agenda in the US.
“I was bullied through middle school, elementary school and it’s something you carry,” says Hirsch.
“One of the things I remember that was so difficult about it was explaining it and feeling like I could communicate what was going on, and I think a lot of people that deal with bullying feel that way.
“The hope was that the movie could put a frame [around the issue of bullying] so there would be less of the disagreement that exists about whether it’s a rite of passage … [you get told] ‘you’ve just got to man up,’ or ‘kids will be kids’. That’s where thinking used to be about bullying.”
It’s this communication breakdown between victims of bullying and their parents and teachers that was partly to blame for the suicides of two of the film’s protagonists, Tyler Long, 17, and Tyler Smalley, just 11.
It’s also the reason Hirsch felt as though he had no choice but to intervene in the life of one of his subjects, Alex.
Sixth-grader Alex was tormented viciously by his peers, both verbally and physically. Students at his school in Iowa threatened to stab him, break his bones, sexually assault him and kill him.
His parents knew he was the target of bullying, but until Hirsch showed them a selection of the footage he’d gathered, they had no idea how bad it had been. In one particularly unsettling scene, Alex is punched, shoved, slapped and viciously berated by a group of students on the school bus.
“The kids and families [in the film] I saw as partners, not just someone whose life I was documenting,” he says.
“Alex wanted the world to know what he went through and I think he also knew that I had his back, but it just reached a point where what I’d seen on the bus on this particular day … my producer and I got together afterwards and it was just immediate. [We said] ‘It doesn’t matter what happens to the film, we have to show this scene and put it all on the table’. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Hirsch says it wasn’t the extent of the bullying that surprised him, but the blase attitude of some parents and teachers.
On seeing the footage of her son on the bus, Alex’s mother confronted the school’s assistant principal, who assured her she had ridden that route and that the kids on the bus were “as good as gold”.
“The hardest part was just dealing with the resistance, you know, the lack of empathy from adults in certain communities. I was really shocked at how that can manifest. We filmed this town hall meeting that was organised by a family, David and Tina Long, who’d lost their son Tyler, and every single school official just didn’t show up. Stuff like that really hit me.”
Through the website thebullyproject.com, Hirsch is hoping to get the film seen by one million kids and according to the site’s home page, they’re up to 127,000 since its US release in March. But it almost never happened.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped Bully with an R rating because of strong language, meaning children under the age of 17 couldn’t see the film without being accompanied by an adult.
Distributor The Weinstein Company threatened to release the film unrated, which would have significantly restricted the amount of screens on which it could have been shown, before a compromise between the filmmakers and the MPAA, as well as a petition which attracted more than 500,000 signatures, saw the film get a PG-13 rating.
“It was right at the same time that The Hunger Games came out, which got a PG-13 [rating] and it’s like a slay-fest, ultra-violent and kids are being murdered. There was so much popular resistance to [Bully’s initial rating]. Celebrities got on board, Meryl Streep, it was amazing.”
Hirsch admits that while bullying is a deeply engrained cultural convention in America, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I believe we’re at a tipping point. Over the last 100 years, there’s been a lot of things that society has turned the page on. Not that they’re completely irradiated, but there’s a massive shift in thinking,” he says
“One example could be drinking and driving. People don’t do it anymore because they don’t think it’s right, the consequences are real and they’ve connected. That’s how I see [bullying]. There’ll be a time when it’s just not acceptable … I’m very hopeful.”
Bully opens in cinemas on August 23.
REPORT by Adam Kamien
PHOTO of filmmaker Lee Hirsch by Lochlan Tangas