The 2010 case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old South Hadley student who committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates, shocked the nation. But Alix Lambert’s documentary “Mentor” tells a story that is in some ways even more disturbing.
Between 2005 and 2010, five students at Mentor High School in Ohio killed themselves after being bullied. Dismissing the incidents, the police and district attorney refused to pursue criminal charges, and the families of two of the victims, Sladjana Vidovic and Eric Mohat, are seeking justice through civil lawsuits.
As grotesque as was the abuse suffered by the two victims – some of Vidovic’s alleged tormentors attended her funeral and posted a Myspace page mocking the dress she wore in the coffin – is the conduct of officials who did nothing despite hundreds of complaints. And of the townspeople as well. Though the town of Mentor was twice named by Money magazine as one of the “100 Best Places to Live,” the citizens did not welcome the documentary crew. Lambert, who made a documentary about Russian prisons (2001’s “The Mark of Cain”), was dismayed by the town’s hostility – only the bereaved families agreed to talk on camera.
She discussed this by phone from Indianapolis, where she is teaching a course in screenwriting at Butler University.
Q. So you felt more at home among Russian convicts than in one of America’s 100 best places to live?
A. I did, and the irony of that was not lost on me. In “The Mark of Cain” I talked to both the inmates and guards and got both perspectives. It was to the prison administration’s benefit because they showed how they were up against their own challenges.
Q. How did the townspeople of Mentor respond to the film?
A. I made a trailer halfway through filming and that alone sparked hostile e-mails and tweets. Since I was still making the film, I invited these people to speak on camera, but all refused. I also got e-mails from kids who were being bullied, so the problem hasn’t gone away.
The e-mails and tweets are coming in again now with film’s release. Three days ago I got an e-mail suggesting that I kill myself. I find that ironic, people bullying someone online for making a film about bullying in their town.
Q. What is their biggest complaint?
A. They’re asking why I’m picking on their town. I’m not. If you want to tell a bigger story you find an extreme example. And if you want to reach people you have to show them what the actual human cost is on a personal level.
This is a problem of not just one town, but of the entire culture of conformity. It’s much bigger than just one bad kid or bad teacher. In my films I’m interested in looking at the whole problem rather than the easy answers.
“Mentor” is available on DVD (Garden Thieves Pictures; $24.95) and VOD.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.