The bullying usually began with an epithet—“queer,” “faggot” and “weirdo” were recurring themes—quickly followed by a punch.
There were three of them, all star players on the Rockdale County High School football team, with two thuggish linemen holding me still as their diminutive leader, Danny, did most of the talking (and punching).
They’d slap my face so as not to leave visible marks, then punch me in the stomach until I felt like I was going to puke. Sometimes I’d get punched by invisible enemies while walking through the halls between classes. This happened every single day for nearly a year.
I’d just turned 15. I was uprooted from the inner-city home in which I grew up, transported to the Footloose-like town of Conyers, GA, and thrown in with rednecks whose idea of culture was Bocephus, a mouthful of dip, and a gun rack in their pickup truck. Because I’d skipped a grade, I was two years younger and a good deal smaller than most of my classmates. And because I dressed like a mid-’80s New Wave kid, I stood out like a sore thumb. My crime was that I was different, and they were determined to punish me for it.
I wasn’t afraid to speak up. I told the Coach who taught the weight training class in which I suffered the abuse, and he disavowed any knowledge. I told the Vice Principal, who said he’d look into it, which only made the bullying worse. I told my father, who told me I needed to learn how to fight like a man. Eventually, between the physical and emotional abuse I was experiencing both at school and at home, I began to seriously contemplate suicide.
Of course, my story is far from unique.
Recent studies estimate that 13 million kids are bullied in the U.S. every year.
One of those kids, Lee Hirsch, grew up to be an award-winning documentary director (his debut film, Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, won the 2002 Audience Award at Sundance). With his latest documentary, the critically acclaimed Bully, Hirsch is hoping to spark a nationwide anti-bullying project that will effect change for years to come.
The film, which was just released on DVD, follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis, as well as the families of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, two students who committed suicide as the result of constant abuse.
We recently spoke with Hirsch in an exclusive interview about his own experience with bullying, his emotional response to making the film, and the ways the Bully Project is firing up the anti bullying movement.
How did your personal experiences with being bullied influence your anti bullying project?
I was one of a couple of kids who were on the receiving end of bullying in my school. A lot of the kids involved would make it part of their daily ritual to punch or gang up on me. My parents were 20 years older than the other parents. My dad’s attitude was, “Just toughen up and deal with it!”
I couldn’t make it stop on my own, and I couldn’t express what was happening very well. Those are the things that made me want to make the film. The hope was that, if I could show through a documentary what actually happens—how violent and scary it is—that it would be an end to people saying “boys will be boys.” It amazed me that that was still an acceptable response in our country. So it was a very personal drive.
Why do you think it has taken so long for a prominent anti bullying movement to rear up?
I think we’re in an age of these types of movements now. If you look at sex abuse and domestic violence in America, for a very long time people didn’t feel like they could come forward. I think its time has come, because we in our country are more open. I don’t have the perfect answer to the problem. But I’m glad that we’re addressing it and that so many journalists, politicians, community leaders and educators are willing to look at how they can create change in their communities.
On a personal level, I got angry seeing these kids going through what we’ve been through. How did you maintain any sort of journalistic distance from it while at the same time having emotional empathy?
I don’t think I identify as a journalist, per se. I saw myself as an ally to these kids. I worked hard to understand where they were coming from, and to establish that they wanted to tell their stories. They were more like partners to me than subjects. In a lot of moments, I was pissed off immensely, but I also had the sense that I was involved in a much deeper act of intervention on their behalf. I knew in those moments that they knew I was there for them.
How did you keep yourself in check when it seemed like the message wasn’t getting through to school administrators, local politicians and police officers?
You talk about being pissed off: I was much more affected by the level of indifference I was seeing. When you talk to parents of kids who are struggling with this, you hear that there are too many people who do not step up—particularly adults—when this is going on in their buildings. A huge part of our work with The Bully Project movement was to use the film as a motivator to create change, starting with people’s hearts and minds.
We’re learning to be more strategic and effective, and I think it’s having an impact. When a school comes together and watches “Bully,” I think it forever changes the conversation there. The same goes for families: It helps them understand and communicate what might be going on with their kid. The parents might open up about what they went through, and in turn their kids might open up. That’s where the work for us is the most impactful.
What was your reaction to the MPAA’s controversial “R” rating when they reviewed this film?
I fought it really hard because I thought it was hypocritical. We had a lot of help, especially from a 17-year-old student from Ann Arbor, who started a petition on Change.org that got over a half a million signatures to compel the MPAA to change the rating. It felt like they’d absolutely gotten it wrong. It didn’t go unnoticed that The Hunger Games was released at the same time with a PG-13 rating. So it was an important fight to have. Ultimately the MPAA came to their senses and allowed us to make some very small changes, which gave us the PG-13 rating and allowed us to keep the integrity of the film.
Since the film’s release, have you seen the anti bullying project gaining steam?
Absolutely! I’m super optimistic. When we screened at the White House, President Obama announced his support for two important pieces of anti bullying federal legislation. That was a big step. We’ve had three Congressional screenings, and there was a bipartisan anti bullying caucus formed during one of them. But we’ve seen more parents, concerned individuals, and even kids organizing huge events around the film. We raised money so that over 250,000 kids could go on buses to see the film, with 10,000 educators getting training and webinars on how we can use this film to reflect on our where our schools are and how we can make changes.
CNN has produced a 1-hour special on the anti bullying project, called “The Bully Effect.” And then you have celebrities like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres speaking out, and the media telling these stories. So I think the national conversation is changing, and all this stuff combined can create lasting impact.
What advice would you give to kids going through the torment of bullying, or the parents of bullied children?
First, watch the film together as a family and talk about it. Invite your neighbors. Have a community conversation. The other thing is to engage with us. We have an active community on Facebook. We have an incredible Bully Project website with resources and tools for kids, parents and educators.
Most importantly for the parents, make sure your kids know that you’re on their side when it comes to bullying; that you’re in the fight for the duration and you’re going to support them. It’s really important for kids to know that they’re not alone.
Watch the trailer:
Photos: The Weinstein Company
Bret Love is the co-founder/Editor In Chief of Green Global Travel, a website devoted to ecotourism and environmental conservation. He’s also a veteran freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering travel, food and culture for publications such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, American Way, AirTran’s Go and Rolling Stone. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger