Bully lets us peek into the school lives of several kids who are being tormented by classmates — but only because director Lee Hirsch was there to witness it all happening.
What propelled him into making the eyebrow-raising documentary must have been, in part, his own childhood, when walking home from school was like pushing through a “gauntlet” and other kids beat on him for “sport.” For Hirsch, the camera was his way of fighting back for the kids in the film and for those all over the country who are experiencing the same thing.
Hirsch spoke with The Advocate about growing up bullied, whether the problem really does affect LGBT youth more, and how he got former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to tell his Fox News viewers that they should go see the movie.
The Advocate: As people are watching the movie, I don't know if they realize that it's you behind the camera just feet away from all of this abuse that's happening. I know you expected to see these kinds of things that happened, so what did you do with Alex, for example, who is attacked often, to prepare for the moment when he would get beat up?
Lee Hirsch: I don't know that there was anything that could I do to prepare. I didn't know what was going on to the extent that it was going on. A really good case in point is the first scene in the film where a student is saying profanities and threatening him on the bus. Because we were such a low-budget film, I didn't have any way to monitor the audio. So I remember kind of saying to Alex after that ride, "seemed like you had a good bus ride," and saying to my producer, "he might have even made a friend." That's how wrong I got that — until we were in the edit room months later and we actually heard what was said that day.
Obviously, the scene that was in the trailer and that people are really talking about, immediately after that happened we made the decision to stop the film and speak to the family and speak to the school. Alex and I talked a lot about bullying and the stuff that he was going through. He gradually opened up more and more over the course of the school year. What I know in my heart is that Alex knew that I had his back. And caring, being invested in his story meant a lot to him.
It's important that you had his back because you were bullied as a kid.
And he knew that. He and I had talked a lot about that. It was a big part of the relationships and the conversations with families. I thought of Alex and his family and other families in this film not as subjects but as partners. So those relationships were very important, and it really mattered to me that they knew. There were families that we shot extensively for the film that aren't in the movie, and in each of those relationships it was really important that those students knew that I was there to fight for them. That's what this film was about.
What was it like for you to go home after a whole day of Alex getting picked on? As someone who was bullied, was it bringing up bad memories for you?
The whole process has brought up bad memories for me. This was a hard film to make. There were many, many hard days for a lot of reasons. That was a really hard day in particular. There was a lot of emotion throughout, but that was hard. I think probably that the connection that you are making with my own bullying is interesting. It's the experience of having a group go at you and knowing what that looks like and feels like. It wasn't surprising because I'd been through that. There are lots of memories that I actually don't have. People tell me about things that happened that I can't even remember. I think I still have a lot of it blocked.
You’ve said just getting home from school was almost impossible for you. I know that a constant theme in the movie was people riding the bus home, which was harrowing. What was it in your case? Were you taking the bus, walking, what happened?
I walked. Yeah, I just remember it felt like running the gauntlet. It was just sort of sport to hit me, or to go at me. One of the things I do remember is that there was a period where I felt like my arms were so bruised that they were just yellow. They went beyond black and blue. They just had this permanent yellow. So it was difficult.
You've gotten such an amazing response with celebrities coming out saying they had been bullied. Meryl Streep told you she had been bullied. How did that come about?
She had offered to host a screening in New York, and it felt as though she had never shared this before, and I don't know because haven't been able to do the research. But she told this story about being up in a tree and that kids were hitting her with sticks, hitting her knees until they bled. It was almost as if as she told it, she was also, in that way, laughing it off. What she describes was harrowing, but she was very powerful. I had such a nice chat with her afterwards. The other thing that happened that night is she learned from another presenter who went to school with her daughter that her daughter is a defender. She had been the one who would always stand up for kids who were being picked on and bullied. That was awesome because she never knew that.
I think it's amazing for people to hear that Meryl Streep was bullied, or that you, the director of this big documentary, had been bullied.
I think lots of people in our world were probably bullied. I think that maybe you know it’s one of those kinds of experiences that helps one be empathetic. I think empathy is required to act. I just wonder if our numbers are higher, which is also I think good news for kids who are being bullied out there to see others who have gone through it that have gone on to make a difference.
You tell the story of this transgender boy named Kelby who was identifying then as lesbian and was ostracized and attacked. For a lot of kids like Kelby in the movie, they are attacked for being gay or just for being perceived as being gay. For Alex, the kids said he was creepy or whatever. What was it for you?
There's a part of me that almost wants to outright reject that question. That's one of the things that gets said to kids a lot when you are bullied: What are you doing to bring this on, what are you doing to make this happen? And I remember that so, so well. I couldn't find an answer. I couldn't come to that understanding. Now as I look back, I think it had a lot to do with my parents who were three generations older than any of the other kids’ parents. My dad is going to be 93, and so I didn't have, I wasn't dressed like the other kids and my hair was different. I don't know that I had the same kind of socialization skills at that point. I was sort of smart, sort of off, didn't have the skills to deflect it and that was something that people honed in on.
Since the movie, Alex and Kelby have both left their schools. And I guess you changed schools too when you were a kid. Did anything change? Is that a solution for kids?
Things did change for me, by the end of my sophomore year in high school. It wasn't an immediate solution for the problem. Problems in some ways followed. For some kids, changing schools is an option and can be helpful. I'm learning so much now about the numbers of kids who are being home schooled because of bullying. Parents are frustrated and they think it's the right or the best and only choice in some cases. The thing is that not all families can switch their kids’ schools. It's an economics issue. It's a geographical issue. If you are in an urban environment it's much easier, if you’re in a smaller town it's much harder. Your livelihood can be pegged to that community. It's really tough stuff. Parents are engaging now in a very powerful conversation through this film about how they support and fight for their kids when they are being bullied, and they should understand the full arsenal. That includes escalating really powerfully within the school system, documenting, making things formal, going up the chain of command, all the way to the superintendent. Use local media if you have to. There are lots of things in the arsenal, and parents need to get very creative, and their kids need to know that they are fighting for them.
There is one disturbing scene where Alex tells the administrator. And the administrator says, If you had only been telling me about this before I could have done something. Alex says, Well I have told you. Was that your experience too? Did you try to tell administrators and nothing was done?
There were many parallels between Alex's world and what I remember. There is this thing that happens in the film where you really see this mistrust. It brings home the conversation with educators that when you say to someone that you are going to take care of something, they remember if you did or you didn't. And that affects whether they are going to feel like they can go to you again in a situation where they are experiencing bullying or harassment. But, yeah, I absolutely remember administrators not helping, or being unwilling or unable to. I think it's very common.
Bullying obviously goes way back. It's not a new thing. So why is it getting attention now, how do you explain it?
It feels like we've talked about it as a nation a lot because of the tragedies. We are also hearing more about when there is a suicide. When we were kids, this never made it into the media or the suicide itself was never revealed as a suicide. So the national conversation raised the alarm. I’d like to think that we are moving toward a tipping point. The conversation is now, for me, if when people mention bullying and they in the same sentence mention I'm going to stand up to it, I'm going to step up, and if we play any role in advancing that piece of the national discourse, then I'll be really proud and pleased.
The issue of suicides has been especially important to Advocate readers because it has so affected LGBT youth. I know you've said bullying affects everybody. But is this whole suicide problem more acute in the LGBT community, and if so does it deserve a different sort of callout?
I 'd rather not speak of it from a perspective of suicide. I think that there are kids who are at risk. I think special needs kids are at really high risk for bullying. I think GLBT kids are at high risk for bullying, and the organizations like PFLAG and GLSEN and HRC have done such an incredible job raising awareness and really owning the impact that bullying has on their kids and their community. I have spent a lot of my time advocating for that within the special needs community. What I really felt like was that everyone needed to take a cue from the awareness-raising, and being really ahead of the curve, and being so active and profoundly impactful, that the gay community has been in the last few years — and probably longer. I do think it's important that we speak about this broadly because you don't want a situation where you feel like you can only get support if you’re gay because other kids get bulled too. So I think it's important to frame the conversation as being about empathy and kindness and stepping up and getting all sorts of people engaged and involved and caring about the issue. Doing so uplifts absolutely everybody.
And that's how you get people like Mike Huckabee supporting you?
And then you have people like Mike Huckabee supporting the film, and you have conservatives going out to see the film that probably, on analysis, will make them rethink how they've felt about homosexuality after they spend the time and get to know this incredible family — Kelby’s parents, Kelby. It's really amazing, and that's important, and that's going to help to change the conversation and make an impact for LGBT kids, for sure, I'm convinced of it.