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August 13, 2012 | by  | in Arts Film |
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Meeting Bully Boy, Lee Hirsch

Earlier this year, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was revealed to have bullied fellow students during his time at the elite Cranbrook School, allegedly targeting one student because of his “nonconformity and presumed homosexuality”. Romney dismissed the behaviour as japes—”I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school,” he told Fox News Radio, “and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologise.”

For Bully director Lee Hirsch, this wasn’t enough.

“I was really upset,” Hirsch explains, two hours before he is scheduled to talk to a cinema full of New Zealanders about his hard- hitting documentary on the bullying problem in American schools. “The whole country’s moving in a direction where they’re saying ‘kids will be kids’ isn’t the right response, this is serious, this is worth our time, this is worth our best minds, our best thoughts to come up with solutions, and then you have someone that’s standing to lead the country who just didn’t get it. I don’t think anyone was unprepared to forgive him. Just not under that kind of apology.”

Hirsch has spent much of his career documenting people who have been fighting against those who ‘just don’t get it’. His first feature documentary, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, covered the role of South African musicians in the struggle against apartheid. The film was incredibly well-received, winning the prestigious Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance. Hirsch doesn’t see a significant difference between that and the subject of bullying, however. “They both deal with what would make people care about someone that’s oppressed,” he explains. “What got me so interested in South Africa in the first place, and so compelled to do [Bully], was feeling like there was a connection. With bullying,I thought there was just such a necessity to make a film, because no-one had captured that and given voice to what generations of kids and adults together had gone through.”

Bully has gone on to screen in schools, communities and film festivals across the globe, sparking international discussion about how to resolve a problem that harms millions of students every year. But while Bully is designed to prompt communities to create solutions, Hirsch was careful not to lecture the audience. “[The movie] doesn’t say ‘this is what your change looks like,’” he says. “It doesn’t prescribe. It just inspires…We get ideas, but we don’t say ‘therefore you must do x, therefore you must care.’”

Ideas have come from the most unexpected of places. One surprising supporter is the Sioux City school district, whose East Middle School is depicted in Bully in a particularly unflattering light (documentary subject Alex, a 12-year-old boy with Aspergers, attends the school).”This has been a really big thing in their community. Really big,” Hirsch emphasises. “We had a screening in a theatre like this [the Embassy] which holds 1800 people—it was a pre-screening, before the movie was ever released – and we thought 300 people would come and 1600 people came.”

Among the attendees was East Middle School’s vice-principal, who is shown cajoling a bullied student into shaking hands with his bully (“he’s apologising,” she stresses to the victim) and, later, dismissing the concerns of Alex’s parents about the bullying he suffers on his bus. “She was brave; she’d already seen the film,” Hirsch says. “She stood up and she apologised to her community. I think that they’ve done a lot of soul-searching as a result.”

Hirsch has also seen surprising responses to the story of Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian girl victimised by adults and teens alike in her conservative hometown of Tuttle, Oklahoma. “We’ve worked in some really conservative communities and we’ve brought in some conservative leaders and politicians […] and they’ve been moved by Kelby and her family,” Hirsch says. He hopes to one day take the film to Kelby’s hometown. “We’ll see what happens. I mean, it’s a journey. But I do think we’ve seen really great allies come from unexpected places. Like, right now we’re working with the Mormon Church. It’s a miracle.”

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