TORONTO — Bully director Lee Hirsch says a bold decision by Canadian censors is opening doors for his controversial documentary in the United States.
Hirsch says he’s grateful to film boards in Canadian provinces that bestowed a PG rating after the Motion Picture Association of America slapped it with an R rating, which requires parental accompaniment for those below the age of 17.
U.S. distributors ended up releasing “Bully” without a rating in the United States, a move that leaves it up to individual theatre owners to decide whether to screen Hirsch’s troubling look at schoolyard abuse.
The fact that Canada has deemed it suitable for young audiences sends a powerful message, says the writer-director.
“It’s given them a lot of courage,” Hirsch says during a recent media stop in Toronto, crediting the Canadian move with encouraging U.S. theatres to screen the film.
“I think that they’ve looked to that leadership because people are so frustrated with the MPAA. But theatres are showing it and they’re letting kids in…. It’s kind of been great. It’s been fascinating.”
Much of the ratings controversy in the U.S. has centred on a handful of certain swear words, which warrants automatic age restrictions according to MPAA rules.
That ruling inspired teen activist Katy Butler to start an online petition seeking a lower rating so more young people in America could see the movie.
By Monday, she had collected more than 475,000 signatures and even met with MPAA officials earlier this month, but the group stood its ground and Bully remained rated R, which requires children under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told the Weinstein Co. that releasing the film unrated could result in theatres treating the teen-focused documentary as NC-17, which means no one 17 and under can be admitted.
Stephen Bruno, president of marketing for the Weinstein Co, isn’t too concerned.
“We believe theatre owners everywhere will step up and do what’s right for the benefit of all of the children out there who have been bullied or may have otherwise become bullies themselves,” Bruno said Monday, adding that the company plans to make the film available to teachers, parents and students nationwide.
But it’s the devastating accounts of student humiliations that pack the biggest emotional wallop for audiences, says Hirsch, who never expected to get caught up in a brawl over language.
“As I made this movie I never thought it would ever get an R rating. It’s like a gut punch to get that R and to realize that there’s so many violent films that get PG, PG-13 (and where) they’re glorified, the violence is almost sexified. It sends a message that that’s OK but to see real-life, real kids using language is totally like, ’Oh, that’s way too unacceptable,’ ” says Hirsch, whose film opened in the U.S. one week after the PG-13 teen adventure The Hunger Games.
“I think it’s sparked a lot of outrage and I think it really got people talking…. And in the middle of all of that I started getting calls telling me that B.C. gave it a PG and then Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Ontario. It was so affirming and gave us all a lot of courage to keep fighting.”
Bully centres on five U.S. kids and families struggling with the impact of schoolyard misery and charts repeated failures by parents, teachers and administrators to address it.
At its heart is 12-year-old Alex of Sioux City, Iowa, a rail-thin boy with protruding lips who yearns to fit in but admits to having trouble making friends. Cameras follow him from the day he starts Grade 7, capturing abuse, taunts and harassment that start at the bus stop — before Alex even boards the school bus where he often faces his most intense threats.
One incident is so alarming Hirsch showed the footage to Alex’s parents and administrators, prompting a frustrating meeting between both sides in which a school official nevertheless insists that bus safety is as “good as gold.”
Then there’s Ja’Meya Jackson, a 14-year-old girl who pulled out a gun on a crowded school bus after being tormented by her peers; Kelby Johnson, an Oklahoma high school student taunted by teachers and fellow students after coming out as a lesbian; and the stories of two families who lost children to suicide after relentless physical and emotional abuse.
“In each case I was thinking: What is the lever that could move for this family, for this student?” Hirsch says of what he hoped his film would do for his subjects.
“But (I was) also thinking about: What’s the bigger conversation? What does it mean to sort of inspire broad change? What does that look like? Where do we take people after they’ve seen the film? What’s the takeaway?”
Hirsch says he’s heartened to see the movie take on a life of its own, noting that a movement is afoot to recognize bullying as a social problem and not just “kids being kids.”
“At the larger level you’ve seen a national, international conversation that’s started. We’ve trended on Twitter. People are talking about bullying more than they have before, they’re asking, ‘Is there a problem?’,” says Hirsch.
“For a couple years it’s been tragedy after tragedy after tragedy — cyberbullying, this suicide, another suicide — we’ve been so alarmed and terrified by this sort of story as its percolated and I think it’s sort of crested into the zeitgeist.
“I think this generation of teenagers is going to be the generation that turns the corner.”
Although Hirsch says the themes are universal, he notes that Bully almost included a Canadian perspective. He says he found a Halifax family that was struggling with similar issues to Alex’s family but that costs kept him from being able to pursue their story.
Hirsch says his own experiences as a bullied boy are what pushed him to delve into such difficult territory.
“It’s not easy to make these movies and so you look for something that is meaningful, that you have an emotional connection to, that is going to drive you hard enough to go through what it takes to birth one of these things and that’s what it was for me,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe that there really wasn’t a film that addressed this. In the documentary world we see everyone’s films, all of our colleagues’ films that we support and there’s lots of themes that have been repeated over and over and over but there really hadn’t been a lot on bullying so I thought, ’This needs to be done, that there’s people that will appreciate this, that have been through this experience, that will feel like we gave them a voice.”’
Bully opens today in select cities.