You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Movies

movies

Filmmaker says ‘Bully’ tells it like it is

Caine Smith is one of the subjects in “Bully.”

Tribeca Film Festival

Caine Smith is one of the subjects in “Bully.”

NEW YORK – Less than two weeks ago, Lennon Baldwin, a 15-year-old high school freshman in New Jersey, hanged himself after school.

While police are investigating the cause of his death, some of those close to him suspect his desperation stemmed from bullying.

Continue reading below

“What Lennon really wanted was to be loved, respected, and accepted by his peers,” his family wrote in the death notice that ran in The Star-Ledger, based in Newark. “Now Lennon is finally at peace.”

The notion of children being tormented by their peers is what prompted documentary film director Lee Hirsch to make “Bully,” which opens Friday.

“But the profanity is real – I didn’t script it – it’s actually what happens in schools,” says director Lee Hirsch of the language in “Bully” that resulted in the film not being rated.

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

“But the profanity is real – I didn’t script it – it’s actually what happens in schools,” says director Lee Hirsch of the language in “Bully” that resulted in the film not being rated.

“If you look at statistics from the US Department of Education, approximately 13 million kids are bullied every year,” Hirsch said recently over breakfast in a Midtown restaurant. “Multiply that by generation upon generation and that’s a lot of people who are going to be moved by this film or feel that there’s something for them in this film or feel like it’s important for their kids or their friends’ kids.”

The film has garnered a flurry of media attention since the filmmakers appealed to the Motion Picture Association of America to change the rating from R to PG-13. The film initially received an R rating because of the real-life profanity captured when children were being hurtful. Rather than accept the R rating, the filmmakers chose to release “Bully” unrated. But on Thursday, the MPAA agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating after several obscenities were removed.

“I’m not a scholar of film,” Hirsch said, “but I’ve watched enough movies to see the crap that gets PG and PG-13. The absolute glorification of violence, or the pairing of sexiness and violence does not seem to jar these raters.

“The kids [in the film] made the point that this is what they hear day in and day out,” he continued. “The profanity is real — I didn’t script it — it’s actually what happens in schools. There’s not a student in this country who doesn’t hear the ‘F-word’ a hundred times a day.”

Hirsch realizes that the controversy brought the documentary a level of publicity that would have been unthinkable for a film of its size. Celebrities, including Yoko Ono, Zooey Deschanel, Anderson Cooper, Hugh Jackman, and Chelsea Handler, have shown support through a Twitter campaign that has reached more than 100 million people.

“On some level, I’m kind of blown away by the whole thing,” Hirsch said. “The ratings controversy has tapped into different feelings and has brought millions and millions of people to be aware of our film, so it’s a blessing in a sense.”

Hirsch, 40, said he was bullied through much of his childhood. He contemplated making this film for some time, but first needed to prepare himself to “go down the rabbit hole of staying on a difficult subject for years.”

Then, in April 2009, he read about two 11-year old boys, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, of Springfield, and Jaheem Herrera, of DeKalb County, Ga., who hanged themselves after being repeatedly taunted in school.

These deaths served as a wake-up call, and Hirsch began what was then called “The Bully Project.” The documentary, which was filmed in 2009 and 2010, follows five families who deal with protracted bullying. The film also chronicles two families coping with the aftermath of their sons’ suicides.

One of the five bullied students is Alex, a 12-year-old boy from Sioux City, Iowa, who is tormented on the school bus and in school, but assures his parents that his peers are “only messing around.” Hirsch was able to gain access to the Sioux City school system, capturing footage — often disquieting — in the school and on the buses. At one point filmmakers became alarmed by events on the bus, during which Alex was physically and verbally assaulted. Stepping out of their roles as chroniclers,

Hirsch and his team brought the footage to the attention of his parents and school administrators.

Sioux City school officials, as well as officials in the other schools shown in the film, often come across as clueless and insensitive to the needs of students who are victimized. After seeing the clips of Alex’s horrific experience on the bus, the assistant principal tells the boy’s parents that the kids on the bus are “as good as gold.” Earlier in the film she encourages a boy who had been victimized to shake hands with his attacker. When he refuses, she chides him, telling him, “By not shaking his hand, you’re just like him.”

The film was screened in Sioux City a few months ago and 1,600 people attended, including the assistant principal, he says.

“She was deeply upset about it and she stood up before the community and apologized,” Hirsch said. “She said, ‘I have to do better, we have to do better.’ ”

The “Bully” team has made tremendous efforts toward helping school systems and parents “do better.” They have worked with organizations, including Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves, which combats bigotry and violence through education, to create teaching materials that will help educators talk to students about bullying. Materials can be downloaded from the “Bully” website, thebullyproject.com.

“We always get calls from schools when teachers want help dealing with peer-group issues,” said Martin Sleeper, associate executive director of Facing History and Ourselves. “Our resources really urge teachers and students to think about issues and implications. We want them to think about terminology, like bystander, perpetrator, or up-stander, which is a term we use for people who speak out to prevent disasters from taking place in a bullying situation.”

With the learning material, “Bully” will “live longer than the showings in theaters,” and will become part of a broader teaching tool, Sleeper says.

Hirsch agrees with this assessment. “We recognize that there are great people doing great work and we want the film to be a driver of the work. We’re not asking people to be superheroes, just trying to inspire some thought,” he said. “We’re one big team right now.”

From talking to Hirsch, who is earnest and open, it seems like the next chunk of his life will be dedicated to the anti-bullying movement. Shaking his head, he acknowledges he’s in this pretty deep and it’s unclear when he will be able to move on.

“I’m dying to work on another film right now, but I’m in this until I feel I can let go,” said Hirsch. His film “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony,” a chronicle of the South African anti-apartheid struggle through its musical heroes, won the Audience Freedom of Expression award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. “I have to step up right now and drive some of this, but I’m a filmmaker, so I want to go back to making films.”

He’s hoping to work on his first feature next, although he does not know what it will be about.

“Probably something a little more lighthearted and a little fun,” he said, sighing. “I’m really tired.”

While police are investigating the cause of his death, some of those close to him suspect his desperation stemmed from bullying.

“What Lennon really wanted was to be loved, respected, and accepted by his peers,” his family wrote in the death notice that ran in The Star-Ledger, based in Newark. “Now Lennon is finally at peace.”

The notion of children being tormented by their peers is what prompted documentary film director Lee Hirsch to make “Bully,” which opens Friday.

“If you look at statistics from the US Department of Education, approximately 13 million kids are bullied every year,” Hirsch said recently over breakfast in a Midtown restaurant. “Multiply that by generation upon generation and that’s a lot of people who are going to be moved by this film or feel that there’s something for them in this film or feel like it’s important for their kids or their friends’ kids.”

The film has garnered a flurry of media attention since the filmmakers appealed to the Motion Picture Association of America to change the rating from R to PG-13. The film initially received an R rating because of the real-life profanity captured when children were being hurtful. Rather than accept the R rating, the filmmakers chose to release “Bully” unrated. But on Thursday, the MPAA agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating after several obscenities were removed.

“I’m not a scholar of film,” Hirsch said, “but I’ve watched enough movies to see the crap that gets PG and PG-13. The absolute glorification of violence, or the pairing of sexiness and violence does not seem to jar these raters.

“The kids [in the film] made the point that this is what they hear day in and day out,” he continued. “The profanity is real — I didn’t script it — it’s actually what happens in schools. There’s not a student in this country who doesn’t hear the ‘F-word’ a hundred times a day.”

Hirsch realizes that the controversy brought the documentary a level of publicity that would have been unthinkable for a film of its size. Celebrities, including Yoko Ono, Zooey Deschanel, Anderson Cooper, Hugh Jackman, and Chelsea Handler, have shown support through a Twitter campaign that has reached more than 100 million people.

“On some level, I’m kind of blown away by the whole thing,” Hirsch said. “The ratings controversy has tapped into different feelings and has brought millions and millions of people to be aware of our film, so it’s a blessing in a sense.”

Hirsch, 40, said he was bullied through much of his childhood. He contemplated making this film for some time, but first needed to prepare himself to “go down the rabbit hole of staying on a difficult subject for years.”

Then, in April 2009, he read about two 11-year old boys, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, of Springfield, and Jaheem Herrera, of DeKalb County, Ga., who hanged themselves after being repeatedly taunted in school.

These deaths served as a wake-up call, and Hirsch began what was then called “The Bully Project.” The documentary, which was filmed in 2009 and 2010, follows five families who deal with protracted bullying. The film also chronicles two families coping with the aftermath of their sons’ suicides.

One of the five bullied students is Alex, a 12-year-old boy from Sioux City, Iowa, who is tormented on the school bus and in school, but assures his parents that his peers are “only messing around.” Hirsch was able to gain access to the Sioux City school system, capturing footage — often disquieting — in the school and on the buses. At one point filmmakers became alarmed by events on the bus, during which Alex was physically and verbally assaulted. Stepping out of their roles as chroniclers,

Hirsch and his team brought the footage to the attention of his parents and school administrators.

Sioux City school officials, as well as officials in the other schools shown in the film, often come across as clueless and insensitive to the needs of students who are victimized. After seeing the clips of Alex’s horrific experience on the bus, the assistant principal tells the boy’s parents that the kids on the bus are “as good as gold.” Earlier in the film she encourages a boy who had been victimized to shake hands with his attacker. When he refuses, she chides him, telling him, “By not shaking his hand, you’re just like him.”

The film was screened in Sioux City a few months ago and 1,600 people attended, including the assistant principal, he says.

“She was deeply upset about it and she stood up before the community and apologized,” Hirsch said. “She said, ‘I have to do better, we have to do better.’ ”

The “Bully” team has made tremendous efforts toward helping school systems and parents “do better.” They have worked with organizations, including Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves, which combats bigotry and violence through education, to create teaching materials that will help educators talk to students about bullying. Materials can be downloaded from the “Bully” website, thebullyproject.com.

“We always get calls from schools when teachers want help dealing with peer-group issues,” said Martin Sleeper, associate executive director of Facing History and Ourselves. “Our resources really urge teachers and students to think about issues and implications. We want them to think about terminology, like bystander, perpetrator, or up-stander, which is a term we use for people who speak out to prevent disasters from taking place in a bullying situation.”

With the learning material, “Bully” will “live longer than the showings in theaters,” and will become part of a broader teaching tool, Sleeper says.

Hirsch agrees with this assessment. “We recognize that there are great people doing great work and we want the film to be a driver of the work. We’re not asking people to be superheroes, just trying to inspire some thought,” he said. “We’re one big team right now.”

From talking to Hirsch, who is earnest and open, it seems like the next chunk of his life will be dedicated to the anti-bullying movement. Shaking his head, he acknowledges he’s in this pretty deep and it’s unclear when he will be able to move on.

“I’m dying to work on another film right now, but I’m in this until I feel I can let go,” said Hirsch. His film “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony,” a chronicle of the South African anti-apartheid struggle through its musical heroes, won the Audience Freedom of Expression award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. “I have to step up right now and drive some of this, but I’m a filmmaker, so I want to go back to making films.”

He’s hoping to work on his first feature next, although he does not know what it will be about.

“Probably something a little more lighthearted and a little fun,” he said, sighing. “I’m really tired.”

Judy Abel can be reached at judyabel22@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the print version of the article to reflect news about the film’s rating change.

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week