Film reshapes perspectives on bullying

Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch, examines the situations of kids who are bullied in school. What’s striking about the stories is not that the film’s anecdotes say something new about bullying, but that they enlighten the audience about its poignancy.

The documentary features Alex Libby, a 12-year-old student of East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s been bullied since elementary school. His classmates constantly punch him, call him “fish face” and threaten him. His story is not necessarily the most significant, but it is the most representative of the message the film strives to put across: Seemingly harmless taunting isn’t harmless at all.

Victim · Much of Bully revolves around Alex Libby (above), who is constantly bullied by his peers. By illustrating the community’s lack of initative to speak up, the film hints at the subtly crucial difficulties of stopping violence. - Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

The film alternates between scenes of different families from various states around the country as they deal with bullying. Hirsch’s skill as a filmmaker is evidenced through the consistent narrative flow despite the film’s scope; each of the families’ problems  form a unified message and story.

One of the most important points of the film is that bullying is not just “kids being kids,” but is a real case of victims and victimizers. The film fails, however, to emphasize that the problem does not only lie in the aggressive behavior of the bullies but on the passivity of the bullied.

Alex is not to blame for the way other children treat him, but he has come to believe that the kind of interaction he has with his schoolmates is appropriate. When his parents approach him, he merely claims that his schoolmates are “messing around.”

Though the movie successfully proves that children — no matter how strong-willed — are often unable to deal with bullying on their own, it does not show how anyone else can really help. In fact, it is extraordinarily effective — perhaps in spite of itself — in simply portraying people’s frustrated attempts at making a difference.

An example is when Libby’s parents talk to the school’s vice principal. They tell her that Alex is being bullied intensely on the school bus. The vice principal’s reply: “I’ve been on that bus. They are just as good as gold.”

The audience knows, from the footage it has seen, that this is far from the truth. And viewers can’t help but boil with anger and frustration at their powerlessness. How do school administrators intervene without becoming overly intrusive? How does a child stand up for a bullied schoolmate without facing abuse himself? How does a parent help his bullied child if schools and police departments are unresponsive? The film isn’t a guideline to dealing with the problem, but a heart-wrenching expression of the problem itself.

Bully’s admirable attempt to make its audience empathize with the victims of bullying is aided by skillful cinematography, which is important. An ordinary school day, if beautifully rendered, can make viewers pay closer attention to the film as a whole — and in this case, what happens during that school day.

Hirsch was able to get footage of bullying in action because he made the clever choice to shoot with a Canon 5d Mark II, which to children would “look like a still photographic camera.” He also spent the whole school year shooting so that children would become used to it. It’s a strategy that works for the credibility of the film and even makes the audience wonder whether the bullies’ behavior was worse when the camera wasn’t present.

The film’s music is also well done; the score flows forward nonchalantly but sparkles with intermittently touching moments.

Bully is a reminder of the power of film. The film’s real strength is that it, if only temporarily, motivates viewers to get involved. Those who see the film might have already known about bullying, but sometimes people need to be reminded of why they should care.