April 03, 2012

MOVIES: Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2012)

Bully is a documentary which follows a year in the life of five children who are victims of bullying. To be precise, it's about three children and the families of two others, who have committed suicide as a result of bullying.

It's not a visually sophisticated movie. Director Lee Hirsch is content to simply point the camera and turn it on, and the movie is mostly a series of talking heads. But when you've got stories as inherently emotional and tragic as this, you don't need to much more than point and shoot to get moving results.

What really hits me in the movie is the overwhelming tendency to blame the victim. The schools certainly do this; we see one principal actually scolding a child for not shaking hands and forgiving his bully. "Don't you see that not shaking hands is hurtful," she says, "and it makes you just like him?" One set of parents -- and these are probably the most supportive parents we see -- tell their son that the bullying would stop if he'd just fight back. Even after they are shown just how badly their son is being treated (the filmmakers realized that the parents had no idea, and felt compelled to show them some of their footage), these parents still think that the problem is that their son "can't fit in," which is to say that it's his fault.

The most depressing thing about the movie is that it offers not a shred of hope that the problem can be solved. We see scenes from a national day of anti-bullying rallies, and there are a lot of young faces in the crowd, but those kids aren't the problem. And as the movie shows us repeatedly, the schools are absolutely unwilling to even acknowledge that there is a problem, much less to do anything about it.

(The cynic in me argues that this is because the purpose of the American school system long ago ceased to be education; the goal these days is dehumanization, to break people down, remove any traces of individuality, and turn children into compliant cogs for the machine. Bullying does all of those things more effectively than anything that school administrators could ever dream of; it's not a bug, it's a feature.)

If you're a reasonably aware person, Bully isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know about the scope of the problem; what's new here is the gloomy sense you get of its absolute intractability.

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