Documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch spent a year at three schools in Sioux City, Iowa, following five kids and families who have been impacted by bullying for his nonfiction movie "Bully."
The film, which opens in select theaters on Friday, has made headlines in recent weeks for receiving an "R" rating from a movie industry group for language, namely for multiple uses of one particular curse word. In the United States, an "R" means kids under 17-years-old must be accompanied by an adult.
After failing to get the rating changed to one that is less restrictive, distributor The Weinstein Co. decided to release "Bully" without a rating. That, in itself, could limit audiences because some theater chains won't screen films without a rating.
As the release date neared, however, AMC Theatres decided to allow kids as long as they have parental approval, and Regal Cinemas and Carmike Cinemas will show it, too, but under the same restrictions as if it were rated "R".
Reuters spoke with Hirsch recently about the controversy surrounding the rating - he and others complain it bars the young audience for whom the movie is meant - as well as the subject matter and the filmmaker's own experience with bullying.
Q: When you were shooting the documentary, did you know you were making an R-rated film?
A: "No, I didn't. Never in a million years did I think we would have an R-rated movie. The spirit of it never felt R-rated. We set out to show what really happens, what these kids go through and what bullying looks like. (The curse words) are incredibly meaningful in the context of the film. Language carries power. That's how bullying takes place."
Q: Do you think that because you also subtitled the objected words, the visual of seeing them on the big screen made it seem more prominent to the Motion Picture Association of America?
A: "We chose to subtitle it because the audio was garbled, and you couldn't see (the bully) saying it. It's actually not very easy to understand what's being said. We needed the subtitles."
Q: Did you consider putting sounds over the swear words to block them from being heard?
A: "Of course we considered it. My feeling is that language matters. (Victims of bullying) are constantly having their stories minimized. Sort of like, 'Oh it's not so bad.' Having been bullied, I can relate to that. A big piece of this film was to kill that argument, to show that it is bad, it's mean, it's scary and it's serious, so serious that kids are being driven to suicide. So for all those reasons, in this context, it matters. We're holding our ground because it matters."
Q: Do you worry that some may find the film underwhelming because the "R" rating earned so much media coverage that the reality of seeing how the word is used is a bit of a let down?
A: "That's happened a lot. People see it and say, 'What's the problem?' Those who haven't seen it have said, 'Oh, this film has so much profanity, I'm afraid I can't take my family to see it.' The reality is there are six uses of the F-word. But there's probably four that are even really for real. One of them is while (a victim) Alex is being choked."
Q: The film focuses on the victims, not on the perpetrators. Was that done on purpose?
A: "I felt like the perspective of this film was to walk in the shoes of these families and kids. That's the point of view of the film. That was where my comfort level was narratively. For me, the film lived these verite moments of what these families go through."
Q: Did you ever feel compelled to follow the lives of one of the bullies, to show viewers what their personal life was like?
A: "Maybe that'll be for 'Part 2' (laughs). The truth is, it was difficult. What I can share is that the beating of Alex on the bus - we had to go back and get signed release forms from every single family from the kids that bullied him. If you notice in the film, only one face is blurred. So we had those conversations. A number of the families had never been made aware that the incident even happened. The families were really upset. There were tears. But they agreed to sign releases, which was extraordinary."
Q: It's astonishing to see kids beating Alex up in full view of the camera. Did you use a hidden camera to capture it?
A: "It was not a hidden camera. They were aware that I was there. But I'd been in that school (filming) for almost a year. We stopped being interesting (to students) on week two. They were just kind of doing their own thing. On some level, they felt they had license to bully him because they'd been able to do it for so long."
Q: You offered no statistics about bullying, about how bad it is in society, or its long-term consequences. Why?
A: "The minute you start putting experts and charts and graphs and solutions, to me it kills the opportunity for people to arrive at a choice to change on their own. The film ends and the conversation begins. Of course, I didn't always know that. I shot experts because I was insecure. But once we knew we had a story, then we found our voice with the film."
Q: You experienced bullying growing up. Have people from your past come forth at all?
A: "I left the town I grew up in during middle school and I've reconnected with a lot of those kids because of this film. Some that had been cruel, some that had not, and some that had been in the middle. Some have donated significantly toward making the film. I've also connected with other kids that were bullied who I grew up with. They've reached out and said, 'thank you.'"