“Bully” documentary offers real-world insight

By Kelsey Crouse Columnist

Lee Hirsch’s moving documentary “Bully” (2011) follows a collection of junior high students from different states and townships within the stronghold of the Bible belt. The students and their parents struggle to hang tough through the bullying and lack of concern from the school administrators, from authorities or from anyone, for that matter. Hirsch chooses “cinema vérité” style for this documentary, creating a stronger connection between the subjects and viewers. Eliminating the middleman or filmmaker presence in the film made its message much more powerful. 

“Cinema vérité” is a style of filmmaking where the camera is obviously present. The subjects know that they are being filmed and often talk directly to the camera. The downside to this style of film is that people may act differently around the camera, which can manipulate the message of the documentary. However, in “Bully” this did not seem to be the case. Following the students and victims of bullying, the camera captures the violence and neglect firsthand. Doris Toumarkine of “Film Journal International” described student Alex Libby’s position as “challenging,” saying that Libby did not understand he was being bullied.

Libby was born premature. In “Bully,” other students call him “fish face,” punch him and strangle him on a daily basis. The filmmaker watched as the other students threatened Libby while he walked down the hall struggling to hold his backpack closed because it was ripped by another student. The emotion the “cinema vérité” style brought to Libby’s story was overpowering.

The emotion continued with Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian, who is also victimized and cast out for not fitting into what the town considers normal. Kelby’s parents talk to the camera as if no one is in the room. With the absence of the director’s voice or a narrator, the viewer can experience these moments as if the subject is talking directly to them. Kelby admits to the camera that she attempted suicide several times. She said she found strength within her family and her remaining friends to keep fighting. After Kelby — an extremely talented athlete — was kicked off the basketball team, she lost her chances at a scholarship and her family was exiled from the community. Kelby’s father offered her a way out. He offered to move to a larger city where she would be safe and accepted. However, she turned it down. In her review of “Bully,” Toumarkine described Kelby as “full of hope” because Kelby thought she might be “the only one in [her] town who [could] make a change by standing up for all bullied kids.” The documentary captured Kelby’s strength and pain in a way that could have been lost with narration.

All of the victims’ stories in the film are moving, heartbreaking and often infuriating. The most shocking scenes the viewers remember don’t involve the actual bullying, but the actions or lack of actions from school administrators. In one scene, Libby and his parents meet with his assistant principal — again — and are again talked down to. The same assistant principal was caught failing once again when she stopped two students who were having an altercation while coming into school. She demanded that they apologize, shake hands and put the incident behind them. The “bully” held his hand out with no hesitancy, but the other boy was uncertain and refused until he was made to shake his bully’s hand. The assistant principal then scolded the victim for his unwillingness. This assistant principal’s attitude is mimicked throughout the film by the school board, administrators and law enforcement. “Bully” accurately captures the pain and frustration of the victims and their parents.

“Cinema verité” mode was an excellent choice for “Bully”: each story belonged to the victim and their family. A narrator would have softened the experience of each struggle. Hearing a story from a third person could still have an impact, but hearing and seeing Alex, Kelby, the other kids and their families’ stories firsthand stirs up so many emotions that could only be captured with “cinema verité.” This documentary style creates the feeling of being helpless: you see it happening, watch as supervising adults stand by, and feel that you are the victim, the parent or the person who needs to change things. “Bully” is not only a Red Box Do, it is a viewing must!X