Ja'Meya Jackson was 14 when she was faced with 45 criminal charges, including kidnapping and attempted aggravated assault, after she pulled a gun on her schoolmates. The sheriff of the Mississippi county where she lived said nothing could justify doing what she did. He didn't realise Ja'Meya felt she had no other option.
Ja'Meya's story of routine humiliation, abuse and rejection at the hands of those schoolmates is one of five stories in the documentary feature Bully. Two of the young people aren't around to tell their own tales of how bullying impacted their lives - both 17-year- old Tyler Long and 11-year-old Ty Small died by suicide, their parents convinced bullying was the cause.
Bully is not enjoyable viewing, it's uncomfortable and frustrating to watch. At the heart of this discomfort is the belief bullying is no big deal, it's just a part of life, and that those who are bullied should just stand up for themselves. But the onus, director Lee Hirsch says, should not be on the victim. Parents, teachers, and school administrators are mystified or apathetic as to what a solution might be, and bullying goes unchallenged.
In his original idea for the film Hirsch had grand plans. He wanted to show how bullying went from the school yard all the way to international politics. But as he found families willing to share their stories, including Kelby, a young Oklahoma woman who came out as a lesbian, only to have her neighbours, church friends and peers reject her, even run her over in a minivan, Hirsch whittled his focus down to a few of the 13 million young people who are bullied in the United States. That was helped by having unfettered access to a school in Iowa, where he filmed for a year. "We reached out to a lot of schools who were really uncomfortable with the idea of allowing a film crew to look at what bullying may or may not have been going on inside their building. A lot would brush it off and say 'we don't have bullying'."
Being allowed in the doors of a school was a brave move by the administrators there, says Hirsch.
"I think they were a really proactive school district who saw themselves as being on the road to change, and thought that this would be a piece of that journey for them. But I don't think they expected us to see the things that we saw. It was ultimately hard for them to see the film, but they stood by it."
Riding the bus to that school was 12-year-old Alex Libby, who was regularly abused, pushed, assaulted and harassed. One incident that Hirsch caught on camera prompted him to intervene on Alex's behalf, telling school officials and parents what was going on.
Alex had told no-one about the extent of the bullying.
Making that decision was a no- brainer, Hirsch says. "In many ways, in the moment I felt like Alex knew that my presence there was one of . . . that I was somebody who had his back in a very real way and I knew that he wanted people to know what happens to him. But at the same time, it was profoundly clear that we needed to intervene and that might have meant stopping the production. We didn't know how things would land up, whether we'd be allowed back in the school. We'd been sending smoke signals to the school that they weren't picking up."
When Alex's parents went to the school to address his problems, a well-meaning but clearly ill- equipped official tells the Libbys the kids on the bus are "good as gold".
Hirsch was motivated to make Bully because of his experiences as a young man. "I probably naively thought I could make this film and in so doing slay all of my demons and put that behind me in a way. But it's quite the opposite. The more I was able to understand the landscape and be engaged in this work, the more it keeps resurfacing with almost each conversation that I have with people. But that said, seeing the bullying was less shocking than seeing the apathy that we found alongside it. I didn't have the bird's eye view when I was a kid going through it."
Bullying is so entrenched that many have the attitude that it's a phase young people go through, that it's human nature. But Hirsch doesn't buy it. "At some point . . . people felt like drunk driving was an inevitability and today it's not tolerated. Generally speaking, most people will choose to not drive drunk because society has turned a page and said it's not acceptable. I have a lot of hope that we can create change . . . a very powerful sense of collective agreement that it's not acceptable and that takes place from the bottom up. I'm really hopeful that this is a tipping-point moment for this issue. Do I think it will be eradicated completely? No, but I think we can absolutely impact hundreds of thousands of lives on any given day."
Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch, screens at the Embassy, August 5, 11am and August 7, 10.30am and Penthouse, August 11, 12.15pm as part of the NZ International Film Festival. For more go to bullyproject.com. Lee Hirsch will speak at the August 7 screening.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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