Hot Docs Review: The Bully Project

By  · Published on May 5th, 2011

by Lauren Flanagan

The bullying epidemic taking place in our schools has gone far beyond acceptable ‘kids will be kids’ behavior. According to The Bully Project, 18 million kids in the US alone will be bullied this year with 3 million avoiding school because they don’t feel safe.

Lee Hirsch’s riveting documentary explores this horrifying trend by following a small selection of bullied kids across the US. The word “bully” doesn’t even seem strong enough as these kids are abused, mocked and tormented daily. It’s written off as a fact of life, something kids just do, yet these kids are physically and mentally abused on a regular basis and no one does anything to stop it. Hirsch films them on the school bus, in the yard, in the classroom and at home, and what he captures is pretty amazing.

Take Alex for instance. As an adult, it’s easy to look at him and think he’s a sweet kid who’s just going through an awkward phase, but for his schoolmates he’s a prime whipping boy. His life is threatened on the school bus and he unrelentingly gets punched, strangled, stabbed and victimized in myriad different ways. When his parents are alerted to the situation (by the filmmakers who couldn’t stand by anymore after witnessing Alex’s horror) they go to the school to demand their son be kept safe but officials just smile and brush them off. Herein lies the most infuriating aspect.

School officials are responsible for these kids when they’re in their care but (in the case of the schools represented) they either ignore or deny these problems and basically look the other way. There are a lot of difficult examples to watch, but one in particular takes place when a bullied boy is forced to shake the hand of his abuser. When he clearly doesn’t mean it, the assistant principal gives him hell and says he’s just as bad as his tormentor. If it weren’t so heartbreaking it would be laughable. Sadly, the results of what can happen when these issues are ignored are demonstrated with two families whose son’s committed suicide due to the constant abuse they suffered at school.

On the heels of last year’s “It Gets Better Campaign,” The Bully Project expands its coverage to demonstrate that this kind of harassment is universal and not limited to any one group. The handful of kids in the movie are gay, straight, boys, girls – the reasons they’re victims isn’t always evident. But the abuse they suffer is pretty horrific.

One thing the movie doesn’t explore is the root of bullying. I’d love to see the story of the bullies as a companion piece to this film. The bullies are featured quite a bit in the movie and the filmmakers had to get their parents’ permission. According to Hirsch many of the parents were horrified when they saw the footage – not just at what their kids were doing, but that school officials had never notified them. It would be just as fascinating to know the story of the kids who cause this torment, unbeknownst to their parents.

The Bully Project is an intense, heartbreaking movie that every parent and school official should see. Kids may be kids, but abusers are taught. Here’s hoping this movie will have a positive effect and not just be ignored like the kids it’s trying to help.

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