Hot Docs ’11: The Bully Project

Posted: May 12, 2011 in Film Reviews, Hot Docs
Tags: , , , , ,

A scene from The Bully ProjectAt the film’s start, a children’s choir performs a haunting rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag.” Bullying has at some point affected everyone, whether you were a perpetrator, victim or bystander. It’s something so ingrained in our culture that most people don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop it. We’ve all heard the cliché responses to incidences of bullying: “Boys will be boys” or “They’re just being kids.” But the rise of suicides in the under-20 demographic illustrates this is no longer an acceptable response – not that it ever should have been tolerated.

The Bully Project is a powerful megaphone amplifying the call to stop bullying in schools. Director Lee Hirsch tells the stories of five families whose lives have been changed by bullying. Their heartbreaking narratives are interwoven, revealing up to a year of pain and activism.

The documentary begins with Tyler’s family. It’s been nearly a year since his father found his lifeless body hanging in the closet. Tyler was 17 years old and a long time victim of bullying that had resulted in physical violence and mental anguish. His family is determined to make Tyler’s voice heard.

Alex is 12 years old. When he rides the school bus, other boys punch, strangle and stab him with pencils. He doesn’t have many friends and he’s a little awkward around other kids. Alex says it doesn’t really bother him, but that’s not realistic – it’s just a necessary mechanism to help him get through the day.

Kelby recently came out to her family and then the rest of the small town in which she lives. Her entire family is now shunned by the rest of the community. Kelby is 16 years old and other students refuse to sit near her while teachers openly condemn her during class because she is a lesbian.

Ja’meya was ridiculed daily despite her acclaimed talent on the basketball court. She is 14 years old and awaiting trial for pulling out a gun on the school bus – thankfully no one was injured.

Ty was just 11 years old when he took his own life. He was bullied by other kids at school. Now his brother keeps the secret location of their tree house alone and his father has learned to use the Internet to connect with other families. Ty’s family founded Stand for the Silent.

One of the amazing elements of the film is ALL the parents gave permission for their children to be included in the film – including the perpetrators’. Everyone Hirsch approached wanted to share their story because everyone hopes it will bring attention to the issue and help eliminate the problem.

Alex’s school was the only one to allow filmmakers in; Sioux City has a district-wide no tolerance policy for bullying. However, assistant principal Kim Lockwood was to some extent and completely unintentionally the film’s jester. She was consistently ineffective at disciplining the bullies or ensuring a safe environment for Alex. Lockwood often seemed ignorant of what was occurring under her nose or admittedly helpless to stop it.

In Philadelphia, a student-led initiative will show the documentary in classrooms across the city at the same time. The filmmakers hope this will occur across the U.S. and other countries. In addition, they will be providing tools on their website,, to curb and eventually eliminate bullying. The film is meant to make the problem “real and tangible” so no one thinks they can’t be a part of the solution.

The Bully Project is playing as part of Hot Docs on Wednesday, May 4 at 6 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre and Friday, May 6 at 4:15 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre.

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