You can read our Bully review here.
Director Lee Hirsch
Transcript of the Interview
Libby: Hi this is Libby Popper from Sticky Trigger, here with director Lee Hirsch to talk about his documentary, Bully. What inspired you to tell this story?
Lee: As someone that had been bullied, it was terrain that I understood and it felt like there was a huge amount of need. There hadn’t really been a film that got to the core of what it is and what kids go through. I thought if I could capture that, that it would really help a lot of people and ignite change and conversation.
Libby: How did you find the students who appeared in the documentary?
Lee: All different ways. Some through Google Newsfeeds that I was getting everyday and sometimes just jumping on an aeroplane, not knowing if people would talk to us or if there was a story there. Also, a lot of kids would post things on YouTube talking about what they were going through or writing to blogs and we’d reach out that way. That was how we met Kelby, her mum had written to Ellen [DeGeneres Show], and her producers connected us to the family. Then our big break was getting permission to film inside a school, because that’s really hard too, and I think that was the game changer. We met Alex on Day 1 basically, and thought he was a kid who’d been bullied or was being bullied. He was really keen and wanted to participate and tell his story. His family was initially much more reluctant, they were pretty private. It was different. Other families were looking to tell their stories, whereas his story, we just stumbled upon. Ultimately, they were really appreciative and did participate really openly and fully. The relationship definitely deepened over the years.
Libby: How were you able to get the students to act so naturally – especially on the school bus?
Lee: I think they just stopped paying attention to me on Week 2. The drama of middle school is so overpowering that a guy with a small camera was not that interesting. Within that, they were accustomed to being able to bully Alex and there had been other adults before that hadn’t stopped it, so I think they just carried on, doing their thing.
Libby: I noticed there was very little in the documentary about cyber bullying. What made you decide to leave that out?
Lee: It wasn’t a conscious choice to leave it out. It just wasn’t a part of any of the stories that we found. Had it factored in, it would have been part of that story.
Libby: Were there any major hiccups during production?
Lee: There are always hiccups during production. Certainly when we confronted the school with the evidence of what was happening to Alex, it put the film and our access in jeopardy for a while. The biggest challenge came four or five weeks before the film premiered and we met with a very senior lawyer, who said your releases aren’t going to cover you for the kids that are bullying Alex. We had to go back to Iowa and my producer and the woman who now runs our outreach and engagement campaign, who was an ex trade unionist, fearless, went and they knocked on 29 doors, and got 28 out of 29 releases. A lot of those families didn’t know that their kids had been bullying Alex and were really upset and, I think, made a really bold choice to sign the release and let their kids appear unblurred.
Libby: With the exception of one of the boys, who admitted that he had been a bully at one stage and then had been faced with bullies bullying one of his friends, you didn’t really look at the bullies’ side. Was there any reason for that choice?
Lee: Yeah. Early on, the voice of the film became really clear that it was the voice of victims and their families. The audience would experience it in the way they experienced it, without a lot of expert testimony or like ‘now we’re going to tell the other side’. If anything, I felt like probably bullies or the kind of metaphor of bullies, they have enough of a voice in society; I wanted to shift that.
Libby: What drew you to the documentary as a medium?
Lee: Probably before craft came this sense that through film, through documentary, I could have a voice and perhaps more impact than just being a protestor. I saw it as a way of creating change. My first film was about the power of music in the struggle against apartheid. I was really interested in how music became this motivator and this glue that kept people together and in doing so I was able to tell the story about mobilising and coming together and also fighting apartheid and the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. I’m very drawn to underdog stories and things that lead to activation. That’s what I like about Bully, I think a lot of our audience walks away and feels like they have agency to create change, and that’s something that I love.
Libby: What’s next for you?
Lee: Uhhh, I don’t know... Probably something really different and light-hearted where I don’t feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world. I really want to explore narrative, do a narrative film.
Libby: Unfortunately, I think that’s all we have time for. Thank you so much for coming in today and good luck with your future endeavours. If you want to read my review of Bully click on the link above or head over to our movie reviews section.
This has been Libby Popper from Sticky Trigger, here with Lee Hirsch, director of Bully – in theatres from 23 August.