Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

A little boy in a garden is sticking out his tongue in a home movie. The father's voice-over says: "I knew he would be victimised at one point… He was always the last one to be chosen … There was a point where he did not cry any more." Lee Hirsch's provocative documentary Bully (originally titled The Bully Project at festivals) goes deep into a problem that is as common as it is ignored. Each year, millions of American children (the film estimates more than 18 million) will be bullied.

He looks at five families across the US who experienced the disastrous effects this widespread form of violence can have. Lines like, "kids will be kids", combined with shame, silence, closing one's eyes at what is happening right out in the open are the misplaced adult reactions.

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The father continues to list more abuse, how his son had his head shoved into a locker and kids were telling him to hang himself. And the boy did, on October 17, 2009. His name was Tyler Long. He was born in 1992. I saw four vastly different films at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival where bullying plays a large part in determining the behaviour of the central characters.

From Peter Mullan's 's heartbreaking and illuminating Neds, set in Glasgow, to the whimsical and charming Norwegian film Turn Me On, Goddammit (2011) directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, where 15-year-old Alma becomes an outcast in her tiny village school for exposing a male classmate's unexpected sexual revelation. From that time forward, she is teased so badly with the name Dick-Alma that she runs away to the big city of Oslo.

In Bully, we meet Alex, who is 14 and lives in Iowa with his brothers and sisters. In school they call him fish face. He says: "I don't mind." On the school bus, a boy whose face is blocked out threatens him: "I'll break your adam's apple… I'll cut your face up… you will die in so much pain." He has no other friends than bully interactions. It shows an America with lonely children having junk food and chocolate milk, afraid of the child eating next to them at this so-called school lunch, taking the blame on themselves, feeling they "belong somewhere else", and they do. Everybody does.

Hirsch had access to many schools, their cafeterias and hallways. "Buses are notoriously bad", one overwhelmed school official tries to use as an excuse why nothing was done to stop an attack on a student with pencils. "They are just as good as gold" the woman continues her contradictory defense of the school buses to the crying mother. The victim is Alex and we see the attack captured on film.

Even Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of Darkness, frontman of Black Sabbath did not escape the impact of bullying. As seen in the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere God Bless Ozzy Osbourne (2011) directed by Mike Piscitelli and Mike Fleiss, Ozzy goes back to visit his childhood home in Birmingham with his wife and he describes how he was picked on by bullies in part due to his dyslexia. It is a memory he seemed to have suppressed for more than 50 years. Of course, Ozzy has been known for his acting out with abuse towards his family, friends, animals and himself. But the singer readily admits that his crazy life, marked by decades-long battles against addiction, affected his role as a husband and father.

In the most forthright scene of Bully a little boy is asked how it makes him feel when the other kids call him names. The eight-year-old pauses, thinks about the question, looks into the camera and says: "It breaks my heart."

Kelby, who is 16 and lives in bible-belt Oklahoma, is not allowed to go to church any more and can no longer be on the basketball team. After she came out as gay, she was ridiculed by teachers, assaulted by a group of football players, and run over by classmates in a car.

The film exposes the unbearable weaknesses and stupidity of many adults in the community and school system who do nothing at best or make it even worse. A completely incompetent school employee, who calls the children her little cherubs and prays for them all, wanders the corridors and has two boys stop, shake hands and apologise to each other. The bully stretches out his hand with a grin, the bullied boy does not want to shake hands and explains very coherently how the other boy attacks him. The woman's response is: "By not shaking hands you are just like him." No one could be more out of touch than this woman at this moment with what is going on.

Reviewed on: 24 Nov 2012
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A documentary about some of the devastating effects of school bullying in the US.
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Read more Bully reviews:

David Graham ****

Director: Lee Hirsch

Writer: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen

Starring: Alex, Ja'Maya, Kelby

Year: 2011

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2011

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