by Zorianna Kit, Reuters | PUBLISHED Mar 26, 2012 | Hollywood
The Weinstein Co. on Monday said it has decided to release its documentary “Bully” without a U.S. film rating after failing to persuade the Motion Picture Association of America to change to one that is less restrictive.
“Bully,” set for release on March 30, has drawn controversy over the MPAA’s “R” rating that means people under 17-years-old must be accompanied by adult to see it. The group gave it the rating due to strong language used by kids in the movie.
Opponents of the MPAA’s decision, including Weinstein Co., argue that many youth need to see the film in order to tackle the problem of bullying, and the “R” rating will bar kids not only from theaters but also from watching it in schools.
The MPAA, which represents Hollywood’s major movie studios in governmental matters, rates films for content such as sex, violence and language to give audiences an idea of what will be in the movies they see.
Releasing “Bully” unrated means anyone will be admitted where it is screened, but in the past many major theater chains have spurned films without an MPAA rating. As a result, distributors such as Weinstein Co. seek the ranking.
“We believe theater owners everywhere will step up and do what’s right for the benefit of all of the children out there who have been bullied or may have otherwise become bullies themselves. We’re working to do everything we can to make this film available to as many parents, teachers and students across the country,” Weinstein Co. marketing president Stephen Bruno said in a statement.
Weinstein Co. had appealed the “R” earlier this year and sought a less-restrictive rating, but the MPAA refused to budge. Director Lee Hirsch could edit out the objectionable words, but has declined to make changes arguing the language is essential to the story.
“The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days,” Hirsch said in a statement. “All of our supporters see that, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received across the board. I know the kids will come, so it’s up to the theaters to let them in.”
Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.
Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying? Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.
JJ: Who are the prime targets? RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.
JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean? RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles.
JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.
JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like.
JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research? RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.
JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that? RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.
JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues? RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.
JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States? RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.
JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood? RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN — the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.
At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”
Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”
The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.
Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.
Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.
All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.
“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”
All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.
Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”
As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.
“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”
Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”
It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.
“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.