From age 8 to 14, independent filmmaker Lee Hirsch was bullied mercilessly by classmates in suburban Nassau County, Long Island. Pretty much daily, he was ridiculed, pushed and punched – so often that he remembers his arms being a constant, putrid shade of yellow.
The scars from years of emotional and physical abuse took their toll, but ultimately led the Emmy- and Sundance-award-winning director to make the heart-wrenching documentary, Bully, which hits theatres Friday. It follows five kids who have been victimized for looking or acting different. Mr. Hirsh zeroes in on this insidious social issue – and parent's worst nightmare – that now affects roughly 13 million children in the United States.
In Toronto this week, Mr. Hirsch shared his own personal pain and his reasons for defying the "kids will be kids" cliché.
Why you think you were targeted as a kid?
I don't like to talk about it. I guess they picked on me because I was an oddball. I was kind of hyper-smart, and my parents were 30 years older than everyone else's. I dressed funny, my hair was always parted on the side, and I just didn't fit in. Quite early, I became a punching bag. Boys loved to give it to me. It was a lot of constant putdowns. And a lot of assault.
What were your bullies like? Were they the stereotypical jocks?
There were some jocks, but it's never all the jocks. There's always this mean group that gets power, and assembles a posse. But then you also have the sort of people who laugh along – who don't know where to be. Now I know from reading studies that there are the bullies, the bystanders and the victims – and all that stuff makes sense now when I look back.
Did you ever fight back?
I tried, in every way, to make it stop. I tried to fight back. I tried to tell. I tried to talk to my parents. We just couldn't beat it. So eventually, I ended up going away to boarding school – and even there it continued for another year or so. The thing that pulled me out of it was finding activism, finding cause and meaning, and getting strength through that.
In the documentary, the parents of the bullied want to help their children but are stonewalled by school and legal authorities who insist they're doing all they can. Does that reflect the battle you and your parents waged?
It's very hard. My mom has passed away and my dad is going to be 93, [but]I don't remember them fighting for me. I remember my dad saying things like, "It's your fault. Suck it up. Toughen up. Don't be a pussy." That kind of talk. If anything, Alex [an 11-year-old boy who is called "fish face"] shares the narrative of struggling to communicate with our parents. But Alex's parents take a huge stand for him. And they took a stand even before they confronted the school, by letting us make this film, letting us into their lives, and saying we're going to be open to this. Alex's parents wanted to know if other kids were harassing him, but he didn't want to tell them because he didn't want to burden them. He knew how hard they were working to put food on the table for five kids. He's just that kind of pure soul.
Bullying has always existed but has it accelerated in recent years?
I think cyber-bullying has added another component to it so it's extended its reach. It can follow you home, whereas when I was a kid I could close the door and it was over. For the students in my film, it wasn't really computer stuff they were contending with. It was brick-and-mortar bullying. I don't know if it's worse. But we are talking about it more. A child can commit suicide after being victimized, and the next day an RIP page will emerge on the Web, with kids writing about what happened to him or her, and how bad they feel. A public narrative has emerged whereas before it would have just been silence and shame. I think we're actually at a tipping point where people are starting to say we're going to go out of our way to make sure our kids understand they have some tools to stand up for themselves, and for other kids. Kids are organizing and people are saying, "Enough."
There is a well-meaning but misguided assistant principal at Alex's school who basically turns a blind eye to the bullying, and shows his parents the door when they come to complain. Did she see the film?
There was a screening of the film in Sioux City, Iowa, as part of a forum on bullying where over 1,600 people showed up. The assistant principal came and gave the audience an emotional apology, saying, "I'm sorry I dropped the ball. I need to do better. We all need to do better." It's been really hard for her. But it was a very courageous, and ultimately healing, thing to do.
When Alex is beaten on the bus, you film the battery, but don't intervene. Why?
If it had escalated, of course I would have stepped in. But the decision not to do so, was based on a lot of things. First, it was unsafe for me to suddenly start pulling them apart. But also at that point, Alex understood I had his back – as hard as that might be to understand. This abuse was what Alex went through every day, and he wanted people to know. All those thoughts were circulating, but at that end of that bus ride, my producer and I huddled together and we said, the movie stops here. And we told everybody – his parents, the law – what happened.
Do the scars ever go away?
I think it depends on the level of abuse people endure. I'm still carrying some of the scars, even though this film has helped me exorcise them in different ways. I get letters from people all the time. The other day, I received one from a 90-year-old who said, "Thank you for this movie. I've carried this around for a long time."
This interview has been edited and condensed.