Educators and politicians take up the fight for a documentary about bullying

The documentary "Bully" is about Alex Libby (above), his family, and four other families whose children were victims of bullying. The film opens Friday in the Philadelphia area. The Weinstein Co.
The documentary "Bully" is about Alex Libby (above), his family, and four other families whose children were victims of bullying. The film opens Friday in the Philadelphia area. The Weinstein Co. (The documentary "Bully")
Posted: April 08, 2012

Jabbed, jostled, punched, choked - that was 12-year-old Alex Libby's bus ride to school pretty much every day. Captured on camera, the boy dubbed "fish lips" by his Sioux City, Iowa, classmates sits limply, helplessly, as he is physically and verbally assaulted.

This scene is one of the most heart-wrenching in the new documentary Bully, opening Friday in Philadelphia-area theaters.

"I want all the kids to see it," says James F. Kenney, Philadelphia city councilman-at-large. "But I want school administrators and teachers to see it, too. . . . The film shows you the long-term and really horrible effects that bullying has on a student's day-to-day existence. Why would you want to go to school?"

Kenney and legislators around the country see Bully as a pivotal social and educational tool. He is raising funds to get at least 5,000 Philadelphia schoolchildren into theaters to watch the film before the academic year ends. And to get teachers and administrators to watch, too.

Organizations as diverse as the Philadelphia Eagles, DonorsChoose.org, and JPMorgan Chase are lending muscle, and money, to what has come to be called the Bully Project.

One of the points brought home by the film - which focuses on Alex, his family, and four other families nationwide whose children were victims of bullying - is that school officials have long been ill-equipped to address the issue.

More than 13 million children are bullied in schools in America each year, according to the film. The surviving families of two of those children - Tyler Long, who was 17 when he hanged himself, and Ty Smalley, who was 11 when he committed suicide - figure prominently in Bully. The parents are seen, understandably, grappling with their grief, but also mobilizing social-action campaigns to combat what they consider a national crisis.

"This film is unique, in that it's really more about a social movement," says Harvey Weinstein, who heads the Weinstein Co. with his brother Bob. Last week the filmmakers came to a compromise with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. Because of rigid rules involving the use of profanity, and because children in the film repeatedly use the F word as a form of verbal abuse, the MPAA gave Bully an R rating, making it difficult for anyone under 17 to see it.

'Relevant'

And it's exactly that demographic - youths under age 17 - that director Lee Hirsch wanted to reach.

"At its core, we're talking about four 'f-s' that are uttered as weapons in a scene of bullying in a film about bullying," Hirsch says. "They're relevant, and critical, and if you take them away, you take away the experience of actually being able to bear witness to bullying."

Hirsch and the Weinsteins stood firm, refusing to trim the scene or bleep the curse words. And over the last few weeks, criticism of the MPAA mounted. Bully opened in limited release on the heels of The Hunger Games, a movie whose central premise is a kids-killing-kids competition. That film received a PG-13 rating.

A grassroots petition drive opposing Bully's R rating gained more than 450,000 signatures. AMC Theaters, one of the nation's largest exhibitors, broke ranks and announced it would allow children into Bully unaccompanied by an adult. The Carmike and Regal chains followed suit. Scores of celebrities, politicians, and educators lashed out at the MPAA. Even the industry lobbying group's new chairman, former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, criticized the rating.

"There's been a lot of ink spilled about the [MPAA's] double standard in a way that I don't think has ever been this publicly explored, with relation to glorified violence receiving the PG and PG-13 ratings," Hirsch says.

And then, on Thursday, after the Weinstein Co. deleted a few F words from less essential scenes, the MPAA gave in and gave the new version of Bully a PG-13.

But while the ratings controversy has brought money-can't-buy publicity to the film - and unwanted publicity for the chronically out-of-sync ratings board - the use of a few F-bombs, says Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, is not what Bully is about.

"My father used to say, 'We're majoring in the minors when we have that discussion,' " says Williams, who represents the state's Eighth Senate District, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Delaware County. Williams, who says he was both a victim of bullying in his youth and a bully, sees the film as "a pivot point" that can bring important changes to schools around the country. He suggests that tragedies such as the Columbine killings could be avoided if educators took a more proactive and enlightened stance against bullying.

"It would not have happened, I believe, if those children had been identified earlier, sent to counseling, had been given wraparound services, and if the school administrators had connected with their families," Williams says. "But the people who were interacting with them didn't know what to do."

Williams says that one of the points driven home by Bully is the need for administrators and teachers to be trained in identifying and addressing bullying and its repercussions.

"The teachers that are coming out of teaching colleges are not trained in these areas," he says. "We're turning out teachers and administrators who are taking on responsibilities much greater than we would imagine them to be, and they need to be equipped to do so."

Williams, a product of Philadelphia schools, says his reaction to Bully was complicated by the fact that its subjects all hailed from rural or suburban environments. He says that bullying becomes an even graver issue in certain cities, where a culture of violence is more entrenched and weapons more accessible.

"In Philly, it's tough, it's really tough," Williams says, suggesting that some school groups are going to greet the film with cynicism.

'Lack of emotion'

"In Philadelphia, I can guarantee you that . . . the majority of the children who are sitting in their seats will probably react to the early parts of the film with some level of amusement or bemusement, because they're hiding from their own reality - that they feel bullied. And so the response is to act with insensitivity, with a lack of emotion."

That said, Williams is encouraging students to see Bully and teachers to incorporate it into a broader examination of the problem.

For filmmaker Hirsch, whose debut feature, the documentary Amandla!, chronicled another kind of bullying - apartheid in South Africa - the social-activism aspects of Bully are key.

On the film's website, http://bully-movie.net, there are links to free curriculums and downloads for students, parents, educators, and advocacy groups. More than 25 national partners, nonprofit groups, and corporations are involved. There are youth partnerships and campaigns with school districts, parents' organizations, and support groups.

"We've set a goal that no less than one million kids will see this film," says Hirsch, who grew up on Long Island and lived through his own "nightmare" of bullying.

"We want to get communities involved on every level, in every state," he says. "That's a game changer. Think about it: If a million kids see this film, that's the tipping point right there."


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629

or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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