'Bully' fights back: Hard-hitting film looks at impacts of being tormented

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 6:57 p.m. MDT

Katy Butler, 17, from Ann Arbor, Mich., poses by the petitions she delivered to the Motion Picture Association of America asking the MPAA to change its rating for "Bully" from R to PG-13 so that as many kids as possible could see the film.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Alex Libby hated getting on the school bus.

The second he sat down, the tormenting began. Kids stabbed him with pencils, slammed his head against the seat or window, and called him vile names.

As a gawky and shy 12-year-old, Alex wanted more than anything to fit in. And so he endured the daily ritual of bullying. He even defended his tormenters to his mom, telling him that they were just messing around.

"If not for them, what friends do I have?" he asked his mother.

Alex's story in Sioux City, Iowa, would hardly be remarkable in most American schools — and likely never would have been told if not for Emmy-winning director Lee Hirsch. Hirsch set out in 2009 to tell the story of five young lives that had fallen prey to bullying, three still living, and two who had already succumbed to suicide — including one boy who was just 11 years old.

The result of Hirsh's work is "Bully," a hard-hitting documentary that hits theaters nationwide on April 13. The release of the film comes at a time when the subject of bullying is being re-examined. Long viewed as a harmless rite of passage, bullying is now being redefined as a social problem, and a new movement to address bullying and the long-term problems its victims face is gaining steam across the country.

Whether it was Alex's gangly gait or unkempt mop of sandy brown hair or the way his white-sock-and-shorts combo looked on his skinny legs, he proved irresistible to bullies, who just couldn't leave him alone — even when Hirsch was nearby with video camera in hand.

Alex may have stuck up for his bullies to his mother, but in a private moment with Hirsch on camera, the boy explained how he really felt.

"I get nervous getting on the bus," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I like learning, but I have trouble with making friends … They punch me, strangle me, take things from me, sit on me."

As Hirsch's documentary shows, the long term impacts of bullying — and even the immediate social scarring — are often hidden from teachers, bullies themselves and even parents. And while there's no way to sanitize how bad bullying is for millions kids every year in the U.S., the good news is that there are things that can be done to alleviate the epidemic.

Roiling ratings controversy

"Bully" has ignited a firestorm of attention, but not because of its subject matter. Unlike most movies — for which obtaining a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America is a mere formality to be endured prior to red-carpet premieres and theatrical release — things only started to get interesting for "Bully" once it became rated R.

In February the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, appealed the R-rating to the MPAA in large part because Hirsch and his fellow producers wanted middle school and high school students to be able to see "Bully." By a single vote, the appeal failed to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to overturn an existing rating.

When Katy Butler, a 17-year-old Michigan high school student, got wind of the failed appeal, she launched an online petition asking the MPAA to change its rating for "Bully" from R to PG-13 so that as many kids as possible could see the film — perhaps even in their schools. In less than a month, nearly 500,000 people signed Butler's petition via the website Change.Org.

Bullying: a brutal reality

The government-run StopBullying.gov defines three main kinds of bullying: verbal (teasing and taunting), social (e.g. spreading false and harmful rumors about another person) and physical (hitting-kicking-biting-pinching, et al). StopBullying.gov also reports that 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, 13 million kids will be bullied in the United States this year.

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