Bully documentary challenges relationships

This is the trailer for Bully, a documentary film to be released in select theaters on March 30.

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — The documentary film Bully tests relationships, just as school bullying does.

After an advance screening March 10 at the Uptown Film Festival in Birmingham, parents, school administrators and children had a strained but civil exchange.

One mother told a school superintendent that schools had done nothing to stop the bullying of her daughter, who watched the film with her. Seventh grader Ethan Wolf and his father, Richard participating on a panel, accused schools of inaction. Ethan Wolf said he had been bullied.

Greater parental responsibility, by parents and of bullies and their targets, was raised in the film and resonated in the discussion afterward.

When one mother asked in the community discussion what she could know what was going on with her child and social media, someone called out, “Parenting.”

The documentary follows several students as they are bullied by classmates. Very little of the film takes place in classrooms. The bullying it shows happens at the bus stop, in hallways, gym, at lunch, on the playground and, most violently, on the bus.

The National Center for Education statistics reports that students say that bullying hotspots are hallways, locker room and buses. With teachers monitoring classrooms, bullying become less frequent and overt.

The documentary dealt very little with cyberbullying and the politics of social exclusion, focusing instead on verbal and physical bullying, which makes for better video.

In Bully, students’ most revealing moments are in their safe zones, at home. They are not always forthcomimg. They bury it. One of the panelists at the screening, Oakland County Sheriff’s Dept. Det. Sgt. Darren Ofeara, said that bullied students have “a thousand-mile stare,” when he interviews them. They have bottled up their emotions.

In the movie, one of the students says that a good week is when nothing bad happens. The filmmakers, concerned about the escalating violence they were capturing on the school bus, showed it to his parents. His frustrated mother, asked why he wasn’t talking about this and whether being bullied made him feel good. He said, “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”

The documentary challenges the relationship among parents and teachers. Neither group comes off well in the film. Despite good intentions, they have long lists of issues and priorities and the world that kids live in — on the bus, at gym, at lunch — is invisible to them.

Most targeted kids don’t seem to talk about it, either because no one seems to listen or do anything, or because they desperately want to fit in. In Bully, one girl says bullying drove her to take a gun onto the bus to stick up for herself and make the bullying stop. An officer in the film said she faced more than 40 felony charges for kidnapping and threatening all the other kids on the bus.

The film and especially the conversation after the screening challenged the relationship and role of bystanders. There seemed to be consensus, and perhaps a growing national feeling, that it is not OK to stand by and watch another person get bullied. Who we once called innocent bystanders are being pushed to get involved and to change the environment of their schools.

A 2011 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project said that, “Social media-using teens are most likely to say they ignore (mean online) behavior themselves (91% of teens say they do this, and more than a third (35%) say they do this frequently).” The study said that his might not mean approval, but might be a way to attract the bullies’ attention or to discourage it by ignoring it.

The Motion Picture Association of America has given Bully an R rating because the f-word is dropped six times, by students, usually at the bus stop or on the bus. The rating means that children under 17 may not be admitted to the film without a parent or guardian.

Director-producer Lee Hirsch is adamant about keeping the F-bombs in the movie. A 17-year-old target of school bullying in Michigan, Katy Butler, has submitted 200,000 signatures she gathered online asking that the rating be changed to PG-13 so that it can reach its intended audience.

There were plenty of teens under 17 at the screening. They came with their parents. One mother in line with her 14-year-old son showed the email she had received from the principal at Bloomfield Hills Middle School offering free tickets.

Even the rating challenges relationships. It challenges parents to see the movie with their children and to talk about bullying.

On the way out of the theater, a mother told her daughter, “If someone were to talk to you like that, I hope you would come have a talk with me.”

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