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Bully - Film Review

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by Carolyn Hopping (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
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A real-life story of tragedy, hope and love
Like all vices, bullying has been part of human society since mankind first walked the planet. However, it's a behaviour which has reached epidemic proportions, especially amongst the young, with some researchers claiming that over 13 million children in America alone will be bullied this year: statistics which are equally shocking in Australia. Despite the pain caused by such aggression, it has only been over recent years that the practice of chronic childhood bullying and its toxic effects have been seriously acknowledged and examined, a far cry from the days when it was swept under the carpet, with adults justifying it as an unpleasant yet inevitable obstacle on the thorny road to adulthood.

'Bully', a new film by Sundance and Emmy award winning director Lee Hirsch, is a powerful and harrowing documentary which examines the impact of bullying on the lives of five American teenagers who endure it on a daily basis from their peers at school. Filmed over the 2009 / 2010 American school year, the film is narrated through candid interviews with the children, as well as with their peers, parents and other significant adults such as teachers and school administrators. In this way it chronicles, firsthand, the pain of these targets, and graphically demonstrates the insidious emotional effect of this abuse in the form of low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

Alex, one of the film's main protagonists
Alex, one of the film's main protagonists

Viewers are introduced at the beginning of the documentary to twelve-year-old Alex, a shy gentle-natured boy who has endured escalating bullying throughout his school years, fourteen-year-old Ja'Meya whose desperate retaliation from years of peer torment resulted in her incarceration in a juvenile detention facility, and sixteen-year-old Kelby who has endured hatred and social ostracisation from her conservative rural community in the wake of 'coming out' as a lesbian. The diverse stories of these young people emphasise the scale of the bullying crisis, and how it transcends gender, ethnicity, geographic location and economic status.

Sixteen-year-old Kelby, from Oklahoma
Sixteen-year-old Kelby, from Oklahoma

Inserted amongst the graphic, almost voyeuristic, footage of these children, their families and their lives at school are interviews with two more families: those of seventeen-year-old Tyler Long and eleven-year-old Ty Smalley, who both took their own lives due to the torment that they had experienced at the hands of their peers. The inclusion of this footage underlines the added danger which can result when bullying is left unchecked, as well as the pain, guilt and confusion experienced by loved ones as the result of a child's suicide. As Hirsch comments in this connection: 'We wanted people to be aware of how high the stakes are and to dispel the notion that bullying is just "kids being kids."'

Ja'Meya with her mother
Ja'Meya with her mother

For Hirsch, directing the film was a deeply personal project. Having experienced bullying throughout much of his childhood, especially during his teenage years, he understood first-hand the trauma of the experience and the implications it often has on later life. Desiring to help others who were also grappling with the issue in their own lives, he had wanted to tackle the topic for many years but had been fearful of opening old wounds: 'I was too scared to start developing the idea in earnest because it would mean confronting my own demons, a revisiting of a painful period of my life.'

Despite its heavy subject-matter, however, 'Bully' is not all doom and gloom, but a film which ultimately radiates love and hope. In the same way that the mythological phoenix is reputed to have risen from the ashes, the movie spreads an upbeat message of empowerment: that from the ashes of persecution, loneliness, and despair, a positive sense of self, individuality and joy can arise, and despite the cruelty of a few, there is still much goodness in the world.

One of the many Stand for the Silent rallies which have been held around the world
One of the many Stand for the Silent rallies which have been held around the world

As chronicled towards the documentary's conclusion, over recent years there has been a growing movement amongst parents and young people worldwide to educate communities about bullying, and especially how it is dealt with in school systems. It's this message which is ultimately the motivating force of the movie, and its underlying message. Since most bullying, including cyber bullying, has its origins in schools, Hirsch emphasises the importance of schools becoming accountable for their own social climate, and taking a pro-active non-tolerant stance regarding any type of intimidation or violence. However, ultimately he concedes that 'nothing can be more meaningful than a change of hearts and minds'.

Stand for the Silent is one of the off-shoots of 'Bully'. Started by a group of students from Oklahoma State University in 2010 after they heard about the tragic suicide of Ty Smalley who had been suspended from school for retaliating against a bully, it exists as a platform for his parents, Kirk and Laura, to share their story, and raise awareness about bullying and its tragic consequences. It also aims to motivate students to courageously stand up for their peers in the face of injustice, rather than to cowardly avoid conflict. Like it on Facebook to show your support.

Connected with the documentary, a website, the Bully Project also exists which provides a wealth of information and resources, relating not only to the movie, but to bullying in general. It can be found on Facebook as well.

In conclusion, 'Bully' is a powerful and beautifully produced documentary that courageously tackles an immense social problem which appears to be escalating globally over recent years due to the proliferation of the internet and other information technology. It's a film that I would strongly recommend for children and teenagers of all ages, since it has the potential to move them deeply and instil a mentality of encouragement towards their peers, rather than negativity. It's also one which all parents and educators should see, since children who are targeted by bullies need to be able to communicate fearlessly with trusted adults who can consequently mentor them appropriately as to what action to take.

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Why? 'Bully' is a must-see film for all children, teenagers, parents and educators, as it deals with a form of abuse which is reaching chronic proportions throughout the world.
When: In cinemas
Cost: Check with your local cinema
Your Comment
Beautifully written review - insightful, interesting and inspiring. Thank you
by shere (score: 0|6) 2642 days ago
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