- Vancouver, British Columbia - We all play a role in the scourge of bullying, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, or at least, this would seem to be the subtle message of Bully. Admittedly, I tend to shy away from most documentaries, as they lay on their agenda a little thick. There is nothing wrong with someone having an agenda, although politicians would argue otherwise. Everyone has an agenda, but what Bully does well is allow its characters to tell the stories themselves. There is no narration in this film, which is a refreshing change from the standard documentary fare.
Bully primarily focuses on the lives of three students and their daily struggles with bullying. Alex would seem to be the one on whom the most screen time is given, and it isn't surprising why. He endures the most on-camera harassment from his peers, while Kelby, a teenage lesbian from small-town Oklahoma, faces harassment and stigmatization from the entire city as a result of her sexual orientation. And finally, there is Ja'Maya, a young African-American teenage girl with dreams, who finally broke under the continual bullying on the school bus by bringing her mother's gun to scare her bullies, resulting in her being incarcerated.
Alex's journey in the film is easily the most haunting in my opinion, as we see a kid who clearly is lost. He loves his family and gets along with his siblings as much as any other kid would, but at the schoolyard or on the bus, he experiences little to no acceptance. He is a punching bag for the bigger kids, but nobody else pays attention or talks to him. In his mind, his friends are the kids who tease him and pick on him, as they actually pay attention to him. There are several disturbing scenes in which Alex tries to argue that they are his only friends. His father pushes him to stand up for himself, placing more pressure on him that if he doesn't, then his younger siblings will experience the same bullying that he has experienced. Alex, ultimately, just wants friends to accept him, but even at home, you can see the lostness that he experiences, as his parents grow frustrated at his inability to change things, placing more pressure on him.
Among the most convicting elements of Bully for me was how when we ignore people and avoid them, we are in fact bullying them. We may not be punching them or making hurtful jokes, but we all know what it feels like to be ignored or avoided. We may think that we're excusing ourselves from the situation as a neutral bystander through trying to take ourselves out of the potential interactions with the nerdy or loser kid. However, distancing ourselves from these kids merely gives fuel to the fire of stigmatization, and thereby enabling the physical or vocal bullying by others towards that individual. If we do not stand up for those who are marginalized, we give our consent with our passive and silent inaction.
In the case of Kelby, we see a girl who wants to be an actor of change, but she herself succumbs to the pressure, yielding that maybe changing the mindsets of a small Oklahoman town is beyond her abilities. And for Ja'Maya, what is made to be absurd in the film is that bullying or teasing is acceptable until a gun is brought into the situation. Not that I would be arguing to excuse Ja'Maya's extreme response, but her case would seem to document in a sad manner how the criminal code doesn't place a significant recognition upon the harm experienced through words or unwanted physical jabs. Certainly, shooting someone versus telling someone that they are a fat ass carries different degrees of danger in that one can be fatal, but the latter can be a significant factor in bringing about a long-term and slow death to the victim.
The irony was brought to my attention recently in a new light, as at my workplace, we were recently all given a review of the business' harassment policy. In very clear terms, it was documented that repeated harassment could and likely would lead to the termination of the employee who harasses others, yet in the schoolyard or school bus, we tend to espouse a different ethic about harassment. It is all a part of growing up, one might say; a necessary experience in one's development. While I would agree to the extent that bullying is pervasive throughout society and it would be good for our kids to learn how to respond to bullies, I would disagree in the assumption that bullying is merely something that is to be endured. Instead, we should educate our children on how to respond to the harassment whether it is reporting the little pukes who make their whole educational experiences about tormenting others to feel better about themselves, or taking a different approach. In the case of Ja'Maya, it reminded me of a situation in ice hockey, whereby referees often give coincidental minor penalties to players involved in an altercation. Sure, we might say that the player should be able to ignore the harassment of the other player, but if he responds, it often results in him being given a penalty. Sometimes, however, the initiator is also given a penalty. The film illustrates how Ja'Maya was herself taunted and abused by her fellow students, but none of them experienced any sort of punishment for their role in pushing Ja'Maya to take an extreme response after she tried to ignore them for many years.
The other thought that the film seems to highlight is how much we close our eyes to the danger that are school buses. We have a bus driver, who is charged with focusing on the road and safely delivering our children to school. How is it that we can reasonably expect our school bus drivers to keep a watchful eye on our children's behaviour when their eyes should be on the road? If anything, the rampant nature of bullying on school buses would seem to necessitate the presence of supervisors during bus rides, maybe 1 or 2 on each bus, to ensure that our children are well behaved. Sure, children should be able to behave themselves on the bus, but they don't and us merely saying that they should isn't going to change the reality of the situation. We make it mandatory to have chaperones accompany our children on other school trips, but the ride to school we don't. The school bus scenario we enable to play out in a Lord of the Flies-esque situation where the children are free to behave as they like, competing for perverted forms of power. Yet the irony in all of this is I remember in the community that I grew up in, occasionally the school bus driver would take a stand and say that he was not going to proceed any further unless the children stopped misbehaving. In other circumstances, he or she would refuse to drive certain students on the school bus, which would draw the ire of parents towards the school bus driver for causing them the inconvenience of having to get their own kid to school. This is ludicrous because the ire should be directed toward the misbehaving little spaz for making life miserable for both the driver and the parent. The sad fact of the matter is that each parent would seem to view their child as an idealized angel incapable of being a bully, thus when school administrations would take a stand, the administration itself can be characterized as a bully. Rather than acknowledging that our children can be little monsters, we handcuff a system from disciplining our kids and bringing them into line when they are under the school's care.
Bully effectively highlights a number of problems within the educational system in a way that few have taken the time to do so. It is rather light on statistics, which is welcomed, because the lives of our children cannot be reduced to mere data. Bully brings the humanity of the bullying crisis to the forefront rather than trying to argue with numbers. It earns credit for not painting the human drama in overly emotional shades, but leaving it to reveal its own humanity naturally.
Rating: 4.5/5 Sour Grapes